Editor’s note: This story was produced through a partnership between the INDY and The 9th Street Journal, which is published by journalism students at Duke University’s DeWitt Wallace Center for Media & Democracy.
The bailiff rolled Sterling Whitted into Courtroom 7D in a wheelchair Monday morning. He looked around with wide eyes through his thick, plastic glasses. His black dress shirt, a size 40, was buttoned tightly.
“I think you need a size forty-four,” his sister Kecelliea Leathers said, smiling.
The start of Whitted’s murder trial became a family reunion for the Durham man and his sisters—the bailiff had to ask the family not to whisper while court was in session.
But for approximately sixty potential jurors in the room, Monday seemed like a nuisance.
Whitted was charged with murder after the body of forty-three-year-old Reginald Johnson was found on July 31 at a Durham home where Johnson’s grandmother lived.
Monday marked the start of jury selection for what Judge James Hardin said would likely be a two-week trial. None of the potential jurors seemed too excited about that.
The would-be jurors filed into court silently and with straight faces. Most didn’t seem dressed for court. One man wore blue hospital scrubs. A woman came in a red Adidas shirt, false eyelashes, and white sneakers. Another was in gray sweatpants.
Judge Hardin ignored the heavy aura of boredom and annoyance and gave the group a warm welcome.
“Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. I’m going to introduce myself to you first. My name is Judge Hardin,” he said.
He introduced the bailiff, the court reporter, the attorneys, and the clerks, and mentioned the courthouse amenities. Meanwhile, sisters Felecia and Kecelliea Leathers slipped in and out of the courtroom, whispering about topics ranging from the proceedings to Whitted’s shoes. Kecelliea made expressive gestures and sighed as the judge spoke.
Then, Judge Hardin addressed the thick air of dread in the room.
“There are likely other places you’d like to be and need to be,” he said. “I do recognize this might be an inconvenience to you.”
But he wasn’t going to let the jurors off easy. He said he’d only consider letting them off for a “significant and overwhelming hardship.” And, even at that, he’d probably defer their service rather than dismiss them.
That didn’t deter some jurors from offering a range of excuses.
“I provide transportation to my kids, and one of my kids is in school every day. My wife works and she picks them up … They go to Excelsior and ages are seven and nine,” Charles Ross said.
‘“Are you telling me that her employer won’t give her a little … ,” Judge Hardin paused to search for a word. “Latitude?”
Ross supposed his wife could ask, and Judge Hardin denied his request. Then Michael White took a whack at dismissal.
“I’m not hearing well,” White said. “I’ve lost most of my hearing. I have a doctor’s letter stating that. I have a very difficult time comprehending conversation.”
Judge Hardin asked if he wore hearing aids.
Not yet, but White has an appointment set for evaluation. Even then, White doesn’t know if he’ll purchase the aids.
“They are three thousand dollars. … It’s a monetary issue,” White said.
Judge Hardin granted him a ninety-day deferral.
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