Roberts seeks to question possible jurors

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AUBURN – Murder defendant Daniel Roberts is seeking permission to interview prospective jurors for his February trial.

In an unusual move, Roberts’ attorney Leonard Sharon is hoping a judge will let him and Roberts probe jurors in private before they pick a jury. As a preliminary measure, Roberts filed notice he will appear as his own counsel.

Sharon also wants to allow three trial consultants he has hired to sit in on the interviews. He wrote in motions that he wouldn’t expect the consultants to question jurors or address the court, only observe.

A hearing likely would be scheduled on the motion at the end of the month, a court clerk said Tuesday.

Sharon said in court papers that Roberts’ case has the potential for triggering juror bias, given allegations of domestic abuse, Roberts’ membership in the Hell’s Angels, the victims’ ethnicity and the fact that Roberts used a gun against a woman.

For that reason, the process of jury selection will be critical in ensuring Roberts gets a fair trial, Sharon argued.

After interviewing members of the jury pool, Roberts would want “a reasonable amount of time” to discuss the jury pick with consultants and legal counsel, Sharon wrote in his motion.

Daniel Lilley, a veteran defense attorney from Portland who has defended many clients accused of murder, said he has never seen a defendant question jurors in Maine courts.

“It’s certainly unusual,” he said.

If the intent is to humanize Roberts in the eyes of the jury, then the motion has merit, Lilley said. “There is a prejudice against defendants,” he said, especially against those who never testify during trial.

“I certainly understand the motivation,” he said. “It’s a creative motion,”

But getting a judge to agree could be “an uphill battle, at the least,” Lilley said. The judge might well fear that having the defendant speaking directly to prospective jurors might intimidate them.

Sharon said he hoped the move would not only make his client more human, but also would make it harder for a juror to lie if that juror were staring Roberts in his face.

As for the hiring of trial consultants, Lilley said the practice is not typically seen in Maine courts, but is more frequent than it used to be, especially in murder cases. Consultants are expensive, which could explain why they’re not used more often.

During pretrial hearings, prosecutors have uttered certain words and phrases that Sharon claims are emotionally-charged and might prejudice the jury against Roberts. Sharon wants Androscoggin County Superior Court Justice Joyce Wheeler to impose a ban on several words and phrases.

Among them are:

• ambush.

• execution.

• execution-style.

• gangland-style.

In addition to objectionable words and phrases, Sharon wrote that certain evidence shouldn’t be allowed during the trial because it could have a similar effect in making the jury prejudiced against Roberts.

That evidence includes the license plate, “Thug N,” found on Roberts’ red Chevrolet pickup truck parked in his Sabattus garage and stickers affixed to that plate that read: “See You In Hell!” and “Choose Death.”

Roberts, 37, was indicted on a murder charge in the killing of Melissa Mendoza, 29, his former girlfriend. Roberts claims he killed Mendoza in self-defense. The couple was embroiled in a custody dispute over their 2-year-old daughter.

A trial is scheduled for early February.

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