FRESNO, Calif. – Jury selection begins Tuesday in the multiple murder trial of Marcus Wesson, a domineering patriarch who allegedly controlled his family with religious teachings, incest and threats of mass suicide.
Wesson, 57, was the only one to emerge alive from the back bedroom of the modest one-story house at the end of a tense, hours-long standoff. Police discovered nine bodies in a bloody tangle and ten white coffins stacked against the living room walls.
Each victim had been shot once in the eye – the youngest a 1-year-old toddler, the oldest a 25-year-old woman whose child was among the dead.
The killings shocked even veteran officers in this Central Valley town, where police had been called by relatives desperate to get their children out of the house. Officers cried openly as they pulled body after body out of the bedroom, the youngest at the bottom of the pile.
Wesson faces nine murder charges, and more than a dozen counts of sexual abuse against his own daughters and nieces. But no gunpowder residue was found on his hands. Prosecutors won’t discuss their trial strategy, but their witnesses include several experts on mind control, indicating they may try to show Wesson ordered one of his children to commit the murders. Wesson could be put to death if convicted.
Showing how Wesson controlled his household through ideology, surveillance and fear will be at the crux of the case, said Richard Ofshe, a sociologist and cult expert with the University of California, Berkeley.
“If you want to take this seriously, you really have to learn how he ran this group,” said Ofshe. The prosecution will have to show how he could get “nine people who didn’t feel like dying to sit still.”
Earlier this month, 2,200 potential jurors were summoned to appear in Fresno County Superior Court. Hundreds are expected to answer the request on Tuesday, and after about a month of questioning, 12 will be chosen to hear the case.
“I’ll be looking for jurors who will refuse to lower the burden of proof in the face of enormous publicity and community sentiment,” Wesson’s public defender, Pete Jones, said on Friday.
The preliminary hearing last April offered a glimpse of what the jurors will hear in the coming months.
According to investigators’ testimony, Wesson had strict control over his large household, which included several children bred through incest.
One of Wesson’s surviving daughters said he would inflict “weeklong spankings” if the children broke his rules, which for girls included dressing modestly and not talking to males outside the family.
The 20-year-old said Wesson forced the family to hear him preach twice a day from his King James Bible, and that he began molesting her and her sisters when they were as young as five, Fresno homicide detective Carlos Leal testified.
One of Wesson’s nieces – a young woman he raised, then had a child with – told investigators the family patriarch had announced his plan to commit mass suicide if there was a threat against the clan, such as interventions by police or Child Protective Services.
The neice also spoke of a more gruesome plan involving the girls, whom Wesson called “his soldiers.” She said that when it came time to commit suicide, Wesson had intended for them to “go out and kill the rest of the family members that were no longer in his house,” according to Richard Byrd, another Fresno detective.
On March 12, the day of the killings, several family members had tried to retrieve their children from the Wesson household. The conflict escalated, and they called the police for help, crying hysterically and saying that Wesson was dangerous.
Wesson’s attorney has argued that the oldest victim – Wesson’s daughter Sebhrenah – pulled the trigger, killing her siblings and her child before committing suicide. “Sebhrenah fell on the gun after shooting herself,” Jones said during the preliminary hearing.
Prosecutor Lisa Gamoian has not spoken to the press about the case, and was not available for comment before trial. But she said in court that the facts speak for themselves, that that Wesson is clearly culpable.
“It was only Mr. Wesson who exited the bedroom,” Gamoian said.
Officer Byrd said that according to the niece, Wesson was obsessed with David Koresh, the leader of the Branch Davidian cult that got into a deadly 1993 confrontation with federal agents outside Waco, Texas. He apparently wanted to create a similar following within his own family, gathering relatives around the television to watch reports on the cult leader, Byrd said.
Potential prosecution witnesses include family members and mental health specialists known for their work on other notorious murder cases, such as Park Dietz.
Dietz testified in the trial of Jeffrey Dahmer, and concluded that David Berkowitz was sane in the “Son of Sam” case. But his work for Andrea Yates’ prosecutors has recently been discredited, and the prosecution is reconsidering calling the specialist.
The list also includes J. Reid Meloy, a forensic psychologist, and Kris Mohandie, who has worked for the Los Angeles Police Departments.
Attorneys said jury selection is expected to take one month. No cameras will be allowed in the courtroom.