Criminal Court Judge Stacy Street didn’t come right out and classify the behavior as misconduct, but he made sure those six people knew they had violated a direct order from him to not have any discussion about Eric Azotea’s case while jury selection was ongoing.
“It’s my understanding there was a conversation in the hallway. Would you like to tell me about that?” Street asked a female juror. She admitted that she asked a sheriff’s deputy who was in the hallway why Azotea wasn’t handcuffed when he entered the courtroom and why he was wearing a bulletproof vest.
The woman, and five other jurors, said the officer didn’t really answer the vest question, but said Azotea was “innocent until proven guilty,” as the reason he wasn’t handcuffed.
Another juror said he made the comment that Azotea wasn’t wearing a bulletproof vest, but that it was probably a shock vest to keep the defendant under control since he wasn’t handcuffed.
The jurors said they didn’t believe their conversation fell under Street’s order to not discuss the case, but the judge was quick to tell them that wasn’t the case.
Street had initially allowed jurors waiting to be questioned to walk around or even go outside, but after the conversation incident, he ordered jurors be kept in the courtroom and only be allowed to go to the restroom one at a time.
“I hate to treat them like children,” he said.
Azotea, 46, of Johnson City, faces two counts of first-degree murder, tampering with evidence and two counts of abuse of a corpse for the January 2015 deaths of Amber Terrell, 22, and Arthur Gibson, Jr., 36, both of Kingsport.
They were last seen around Jan. 7 or Jan 8, 2015, by relatives in Kingsport. Their bodies were found April 22 in the crawl space of Azotea’s Woodland Drive residence in the Pinecrest community of Carter County off the Milligan Highway near Johnson City.
State prosecutors filed a notice early in the case to seek the death penalty if Azotea is convicted of first-degree murder. The actual trial begins next week, but Street will use three days this week to pre-qualify the panel on high-interest issues like the death penalty, pretrial publicity and hardships being sequestered.
Fifty-nine potential jurors were questioned Monday, but only 15 will return next week for the final jury selection. Aside from the six dismissed for ignoring the judge’s order, others excused included seven for health issues; 11 for financial hardship or family obligations; two who had family members murdered in the past; five who could not vote to impose the death penalty; six who had already formed an opinion about Azotea’s guilt; five who had some connection to a witness or attorneys in the case; and two who knew information from reading about the case.
Azotea remained in custody while the case is pending. He is represented by Gene Scott, Lesley Tiller and Dan Smith. District Attorney General Tony Clark and Assistant District Attorney General Dennis Brooks are prosecuting the case.