York trial opens with jury selection amid tight security

BRUNSWICK – Opening arguments will begin today in the child molestation trial of cult leader Malachi York.

Jury selection started here Monday under heavy security at the federal courthouse. Dozens of law enforcement officers, including state troopers, Brunswick police and U.S. marshals, surrounded the building. Some were stationed on a rooftop across the street.

After a tedious day of questioning a pool of 125 prospective jurors, a jury of 11 women and five men – including four alternates -was selected. Judge Ashley Royal did not designate which of the jurors were alternates, but U.S. Attorney spokeswoman Pam Lightsey said all would hear the trial, and the alternates would be named later.

Only a few of York’s supporters attended the jury selection, and they didn’t demonstrate outside as they have done in recent hearings. Royal warned them last week against protesting near the courthouse during the trial. A parking lot just down the street was designated as a demonstration site, but it remained empty throughout the day.

York faces federal charges that he transported children across state lines for sexual purposes. He also faces racketeering charges for allegedly failing to report monetary transactions.

Both sides said at the end of the day Monday that they were pleased with the jury selection process. York’s lead attorney, Adrian Patrick, said he wasn’t concerned about the low number of blacks on the jury.

York is black, and the jury includes 13 whites and three blacks.

“The alleged victims are black,” he said. “I don’t think race in this is going to be a factor. This isn’t going to be a race-based case. It’s going to be a fact-based case.”

Royal ordered the trial closed to everyone except the media. About 10 members of York’s family watched the trial from a closed-circuit television in a separate room in the building. A marshal said the closed-circuit TV room was open only to the defendant’s family for jury selection.

Media coverage in the case played a large role in jury questioning. About 35 jurors stood up when Royal asked how many had prior knowledge of the case. The next three hours were spent with Royal questioning the jurors individually, in a separate room, about their knowledge of the case, and some were dismissed.

At the end of the selection process, which finished at just after 5 p.m., Royal said it took longer than normal in a federal trial.

“It does not usually take this long to pick a jury, and it took this long because of pretrial publicity,” he said.

He also informed the jury that they would not be sequestered until deliberations, and he cautioned them strongly against following any media coverage of the high-profile case. Several newspaper and TV reporters were at the trial.

York entered the court wearing a black blazer and white shirt. In previous hearings he had shown defiance, refusing to stand on one occasion when the judge entered the room. But Monday he sat quietly taking notes, often speaking to his attorneys, and stood for several moments when the judge asked him so that potential jurors could answer whether they knew him.

Royal also made the unusual move of selecting the jury anonymously. They were identified only by number, and neither the prosecution nor defense will know their names. Also, Royal told the jurors that for the duration of the trial, they will be picked up at undisclosed locations by U.S. marshals and brought to the courthouse.

He cautioned them not to negatively construe either the anonymity and the high security against the defendant or prosecution.

“This has been a trial involving extraordinary pretrial publicity, and as a result we have had to take some steps we ordinarily wouldn’t take,” he said.

But Patrick indicated he believed the amount of security was overkill, noting that there had been no security breaches at previous hearings.

“It’s definitely much more than I’ve seen,” he said. “Just based on the history of the case, it appears to be excessive.”

Last week, Patrick became York’s lone attorney after York fired his other four attorneys. But one of those attorneys, Manny Arora, stayed on the case at the urging of the judge. Milledgeville attorney Cedric Davis was also hired last week and will assist Patrick.

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