Jury selection for the murder trial of Timothy Wayne Shepherd, starting today, is expected to focus on grisly details publicized about the alleged crime — and whether jurors need a body to convict the 28-year-old Houston man.
Shepherd could face life in prison if convicted of killing his former girlfriend, Tynesha Stewart. Investigators believe Shepherd choked the Texas A&M engineering major to death, dismembered her body and burned her remains on two barbecue pits on the patio of his apartment over the course of two days.
Chip Lewis, Shepherd's defense attorney, said he wanted to get jurors who could "compartmentalize" or separate the allegations of Stewart's slaying from the grim aspects of what happened to her body after her death.
"The details are the details, we can't change them, but the details are irrelevant as to whether Tim Shepherd is guilty of murder," Lewis said. "Nothing that happened after Ms. Stewart's death changed the facts about how she died."
Police said Shepherd confessed to many of the details of the crime after leading investigators and community activist Quanell X to a trash bin where Shepherd said he dumped the girl's body. Her corpse was not found. Shepherd later told police he burned the body.
According to court records, police recovered 30 pieces of charred bone and hair from Shepherd's apartment, but Lewis said there is no DNA analysis that connects Stewart to any of those remains, leaving prosecutors without a victim's body.
Geoffrey Corn, a criminal law professor at South Texas College of Law, said convicting Shepherd would probably be harder because there isn't a body, but not impossible.
Prosecutors will have to convince jurors that Stewart's disappearance coupled with other evidence indicating that Shepherd acted improperly supports the inference that she was murdered and that he disposed of her, Corn said.
Prosecutors are likely to ask prospective jurors about convicting without a body during jury selection, Corn said.
Assistant District Attorney Marie Primm has declined to comment on the trial.
Because the case received so much media attention when Stewart disappeared, 120 prospective jurors, double the usual number, will fill out questionnaires that attorneys on both sides will use to screen jurors on Tuesday. Opening arguments are scheduled to begin on Wednesday.
The questionnaire includes inquiries about how many times each prospective juror saw the story in the news ranging from zero to more than 10 times.
Media attention included interviews with Quanell X, Stewart's family and police, all of whom noted that investigators said Shepherd confessed.
In the weeks leading up to the trial, Shepherd's attorneys said that confession should be thrown out because police questioned him after he asked for an attorney.
Defense attorneys Stanley Schneider and Robert Fickman testified that they tried to talk to Shepherd while he was in custody but were waved off by former Assistant District Attorney Kelly Siegler, because of a conflict of interest.
State District Judge Vanessa Velasquez ruled that Shepherd voluntarily waived his request and spoke to detectives on his own accord.