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Jury selection begins in restaurant-beating trial

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

The prosecution and defense asked potential jurors if they had ever been spat on, or been the target of racial slurs, as jury selection got underway Monday in the case of a Poulan, Ga., man accused of attacking an Army reservist at a Cracker Barrel restaurant in Morrow.

Troy Dale West, Jr., who is Caucasian, allegedly beat Army reservist, Tashawnea Hill, an African-American woman, and yelled racial slurs at her, in front of her then- 7-year-old daughter, in the foyer of the restaurant in September 2009.

West told police, at the time, that Hill spit on him before he allegedly attacked her. However, according to a Morrow Police Department incident report, witnesses told police that Hill did not spit on West.

The report said West attacked Hill after she said to him that he had almost hit her daughter with the restaurant door, as Hill was entering the establishment, and West was leaving. West is facing charges of aggravated assault, battery, disorderly conduct, false imprisonment, and cruelty to children.

Jury selection is scheduled to resume today, but opening arguments may be a day, or more, away, according to West's attorney, Tony Axam. Just before 5 p.m., Monday, Clayton County Superior Court Judge Geronda V. Carter told 28 potential jurors that they did not have to return to court, for further questioning, until 3 p.m., today. Axam said there is a total of 84 potential jurors to be considered.

"I expect jury selection will last a couple of days," he said. "It will probably be Wednesday, maybe Thursday, before we get to opening arguments," said Axam.

The case has attracted attention from a number of community activists, who have pushed for West's prosecution. Approximately two dozen activists showed up on Monday, to watch the proceedings. Some said they were there to support Hill, but to also see that a fair trial was held for West.

"It's important for us to be here, not only because this was a violation of Ms. Hill's civil and human rights, but because it was also a violation of the community -- all over a door," said former Atlanta City Councilman, and community activist, Derrick Boazman. "It represents the worst in society. We are here to let Tasha know she does not stand alone.

"We are also here to watch, and make sure that justice is served. He [West] should be afforded a jury trial of his peers."

Jonesboro resident, Michael Zachary, said he was on his way back to Georgia, from Kentucky, Sunday night, when his wife called him to tell him the trial was taking place Monday. He said he got home at 1 a.m., on Monday, but wanted to be at the courthouse at 8:30 a.m., to watch the proceedings, because it reminded him of what African Americans went through during the slavery, and Civil Rights eras.

He said he was shocked when he first heard about what happened to Hill, last year.

"I felt unbelief that in 2009, 50 years supposedly after the Civil Rights movement, that we still had people who thought it was OK to hit a woman," Zachary said. "It is never OK for a woman to be brutalized ... There is no reason for a man to touch a woman, other than love, or in care." He later added, "I speak out, just with my presence," against racial- or gender-based attacks on people.

Troy West's wife was in attendance during jury selection, but when a reporter attempted to get a comment from her outside the courtroom, a woman, who had been sitting with the defense team, whisked her away.

Clayton County District Attorney Tracy Graham Lawson, who is leading the prosecution of the case, said she could not comment on the case. She said Judge Carter had issued a gag order that applied to attorneys on both sides.

The questions posed to potential jurors by Axam and Lawson ranged from queries about whether they had ever been spat on; to whether females in the group had been called an expletive that is also a term for a female dog; to whether they knew people who were involved in the case, related to West, or who worked for Cracker Barrel.

Axam also asked potential jurors whether they were members of the international, high IQ society, Mensa; whether they had the "extraordinary ability" to detect when someone was lying, or whether they read, or ever wrote, any poetry.

Some of the potential jurors reported that they had previously served in the military, while others said they had previously fought with strangers, and had seen television coverage surrounding the case. One female, potential juror admitted, however, that she was friends with Lawson, had been "heavily involved" in the district attorney's 2008 election campaign, and sometimes, had lunch with her.

Axam had been seeking a change in venue for the trial, he said, but lost that battle -- at least temporarily -- during a motions hearing on Monday morning. His motion for a venue change, filed in Superior Court in July, listed pre-trial publicity as the reason for the request.

"The judge denied it, tentatively, although she said she will reconsider it at the end of jury selection," he said, on Monday.

Cameras were also not allowed in the courtroom, on Monday, according to a staff member in the judge's office.