A packed courtroom of Calaveras County citizens received instructions from Judge Thomas Smith on Wednesday as jury selection began for the trial of Peter Jordan Chiesa, who faces two counts of first-degree murder.
Chiesa, 65, is accused in the June 25, 2002, shooting deaths of Leslie Hannameyer, 43, and Annette Truman, 41, while the two women cleaned up tree-trimming debris from a common driveway shared by the three families near Wallace.
The driveway and an easement across Chiesa´s property had been a source of conflict between the Chiesa family and those of Hannameyer and Truman for several years, authorities said.
Chiesa had contracted for the trimming of Eucalyptus trees lining the driveway, but the limbs remained on the ground, partially blocking the way, requiring Hannameyer and Truman to use a chainsaw on the larger branches.
Prior to the shootings, Chiesa called 911 and told the dispatcher he was going to kill the people cutting his wood.
The court called 300 prospective jurors, conducting initial instructions in four gatherings at 8:30 and 10 a.m. and 1 and 3:30 p.m. on Wednesday.
About 70 people showed up for the first session, at which Judge Smith briefly explained the case, and introduced Chiesa, his attorney Clyde Blackmon, and Deputy District Attorney Seth Matthews.
“This could easily take four weeks to try,” Smith told the crowd, adding it might even stretch to five weeks since they can only conduct the trial three days a week.
The trial is being held in the chambers routinely used for Board of Supervisors´ meetings.
Court dates are scheduled for Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, Smith said, along with Monday, March 1, and Tuesday, March 16.
Prospective jurors were given a 15-page form with 122 questions asking, among other things, if they had read or heard about the case, if they had discussed it with anyone, and whether they knew anyone with the District Attorney´s Office or any of the witnesses listed to be called.
Other questions asked jurors for the last three movies they saw, the last book they read, if they owned a gun, and what they thought about psychiatrists testifying during trials.
Jurors also could request a hardship form to be excused from jury duty. Those would be reviewed later in private by Blackmon, Matthews and Smith.
Remaining prospective jurors are scheduled to meet again in two groups today and Wednesday for interviews by the attorneys and judge.
During a pre-trial appearance last Monday, Blackmon said he was not disputing that his client shot the two women.
“That´s not going to be an issue,” Blackmon said.
He and Smith and Matthews discussed whether tests regarding Chiesa´s mental state would be admissible, something which could be used to argue the defendant was not responsible for his actions.
Expert witnesses can no longer testify that, in their opinion, the defendant had “diminished capacity” at the time of the crime and therefore did not have pre-meditation, deliberation or malice aforethought, the three elements needed for first-degree murder.
Medical experts can make an argument of “diminished actuality,” citing the defendant´s mental condition, but allowing the jury to determine on its own whether those mental states actually existed at the time of the incident.
“That´s the primary issue; what´s the mental state at the time of the killings,” Blackmon said in an interview after Monday´s proceeding.
“If the jury believes he couldn´t harbor malice aforethought, couldn´t premeditate and deliberate, then it´s possible, theoretically, to get the case to involuntary manslaughter,” Blackmon said.
Judge Smith ruled that portions of an audio recording made during a May 16, 2003, conversation at the jail between Chiesa and his wife Donna were admissible.
They include comments Peter Chiesa made about Hannameyer and Truman.
Blackmon argued that Chiesa´s statements are highly emotional and prejudicial.
Matthews countered by arguing the comments go to the central issue of motive n that it was about the wood that had been cut, which related to the dispute about the easement.
Chiesa´s conversation showed that was still the concern, 11 months after the shootings, and that the killings were not triggered by rage, Matthews added.
Chiesa will not be handcuffed or shackled during the proceedings, and his jail-issued red jumpsuit was replaced Wednesday with slacks and a purple sweater.
He remains in custody at the Calaveras County Jail without bail.
Calaveras Enterprise story by Craig Koscho. For more Calaveras news, click: calaverasenterprise.com