Cape man's murder trial to get underway

Monday, May 15, 2006

Opening statements in the trial of Justin Brown, who is accused of kidnapping and killing a Cape Girardeau County man, are scheduled to begin today in Pulaski County.

Brown, 26, of 507 Cape Meadows, is charged with first-degree murder and kidnapping in the July 7, 2002, slaying of Ralph Lee Lape Jr., 54. A co-defendant in the case, Mark A. Gill, was convicted by a jury in 2002 and sentenced to be executed.

Lape was found shot to death and buried in a cornfield near Portageville, Mo. According to prosecutors, Gill and Brown decided to kidnap Lape when they discovered he had a large amount of money in his bank account.

After the slaying, the two withdrew several thousands of dollars from the victim's bank account.

Brown's jury trial, which has been postponed about three times previous, is expected to get underway at 9 a.m. today in Waynesville, Mo., with opening statements by prosecutors, Cape Girardeau County Prosecuting Attorney Morley Swingle said. If convicted of first-degree murder, Brown is eligible for the death penalty.

For three days last week, prosecutors and defense attorneys selected 12 jurors and four alternates from a field of 120 potential jurors, according to Swingle.

On Wednesday, potential jurors filled out a questionnaire from which 27 people were eliminated. On Thursday, attorneys conducted a general question-and-answer section to the jurors on the case, Swingle said.

Despite a blown transformer and the loss of electricity in the courthouse on Thursday, juror selection continued with the aid of sunlight and only 67 prospective jurors were asked to return for the next day, Swingle said.

In groups of 16, jurors on Friday were asked questions about the death penalty. If a potential juror felt too strongly one way or the other about a death sentence, they were excused, Swingle said. Jury selection concluded around 7 p.m.

The state planned on calling 35 witness and the defense indicated they would call about 17 witnesses, according to Swingle. Prosecution testimony is expected to last the first two days of the trial with defense testimony about a day. Closing arguments and deliberations could possibly begin Wednesday night.

If the jurors reach a guilty verdict, they would then proceed directly to a punishment phase where both sides would put on cases for punishment, Swingle said.

The trial, being held in Pulaski County on a change of venue, is expected to last the week.

kmorrison@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 127

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