ST. CLAIRSVILLE - Potential jurors were questioned Monday in preparation for the capital murder trial of Brandon Michael Phelps.
Phelps, 21, of 1281 Birch St., Bellaire, is charged with four counts of aggravated murder committed in the course of rape, aggravated burglary, burglary and trespassing. Each count of murder carries a death penalty specification.
His co-defendant, Devin Wayne Fuller, 21, 3567 Franklin St., Bellaire, was sentenced to life without parole last month after a jury found him guilty of aggravated murder committed in the course of aggravated burglary, aggravated burglary and burglary.
The charges stem from a June 30, 2012 rape and murder of Lydia Ashworth, 92, in her home.
Phelps had asked Common Pleas Judge Frank Fregiato for a change of venue on the grounds that extensive pre-trial publicity may have made the process of obtaining a fair trial difficult.
The matter was brought before jury candidates by the attorneys, who questioned them about their exposure to the case.
Defense Attorney Jake Blakesly asked potential jurors if Fuller's guilty verdict would have any bearing on their decision.
He also asked about their ability to put aside their feelings and opinions, and whether they would be influenced by family, friends and co-workers.
"A belief is not an idea the mind possesses, it is an idea that possesses the mind," he said.
Blakesly underscored the importance of relying on evidence presented, not publicity.
"The person accused of a crime should not be tried by the press. He should be tried by 12 jurors," he said.
"We don't try people in the media," said Public Defender Frank Pierce, adding the results of the Fuller case should not influence them. "The cases could be entirely different."
Prosecutor Dan Fry said the questioning of jurors was proceeding smoothly and will continue today.