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Judge denies request for jury consultant in murder trial

OTTAWA — A woman was asked Monday if she had heard anything about the Kenneth Cusick case. She had, on social media.

Then she pointed a finger at La Salle County state’s attorney Karen Donnelly.

“I’m friends with Karen on Facebook,” she said. Judge Cynthia M. Raccuglia excused her immediately.

The Cusick murder case is quickly becoming precedent-setting for La Salle County. A number of potential jurors signaled they heard something about the case not through print or broadcast media but rather through social media, of which Donnelly is an active participant. Kenneth Cusick, 52, of Ottawa is on trial this week for allegedly drowning wife Tracy in a toilet in their home 13 years ago.

Raccuglia is trying to pinpoint who has heard about the case through Facebook and other social media. She’s also trying to ferret out those who, based on what they’ve heard and read, have already made up their minds about how Tracy Cusick died.

“You’ll see me get rid of a lot of people,” the judge said.

Eight jurors have been empaneled. Six more are needed.

Raccuglia and the lawyers allocated two full days for jury selection — opening statements begin Wednesday — and it looks as if they’ll need most of that to find 12 jurors and two alternates either with limited knowledge of the case or whose minds are not yet made up.

Monday’s proceedings were otherwise notable for contentious pre-trial motions by state and defense.

Prosecutors asked to have a jury consultant sit in during juror selection; Raccuglia said no and expressed irritation at the last-minute entry.

The defense tendered a PowerPoint to be included at trial, and prosecutors say they can’t open it, making it null and void. Raccuglia reserved a ruling.

The judge also approved some questions and barred others. Lawyers were told not ask if prospective jurors are divorced or experiencing marital difficulties and may not ask if they are in drug or alcohol treatment. Jurors may, however, be asked if they know of others in treatment and whether they know of people who have drowned.

The disputed questions appeared to be efforts at finding people with preconceived notions about the likelihood of drowning in shallow water, and while under the influence of drugs, in hopes of getting jurors who can settle a “battle of pathologists,” as defense lawyer Ryan Hamer put it.

The prospective jury pool is expected to be in excess of 600.

The trial is expected to stretch into late next week, even if witnesses take the stand Wednesday under the current, fingers-crossed, timetable.

Cusick would face 20-60 years in prison if convicted of first-degree murder. Prosecutors allege he drowned wife Tracy in a toilet in 2006 — the case took a long, circuitous route getting to trial — while Cusick’s lawyers think the state’s case is problematic and that Cusick cannot be found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

Prosecutors are expected to call their first witness Wednesday, Dec. 4 and rest the following Monday. Ottawa defense attorneys Ryan Hamer and Ed Kuleck have experts lined up Dec. 10-12. If that timetable holds, closing arguments could take place Friday, Dec. 13.

Tom Collins can be reached at (815) 220-6930 or TCollins@shawmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @NT_Court.

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