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Jury problems bring late start to Houck theft trial

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By Forrest Berkshire, Editor

Jury problems snarled the Brooks Houck trial even before prosecutors’ opening statements in Bowling Green Tuesday, casting it into “uncharted waters” as one defense attorney termed it.

Following the first break during jury selection, Houck’s sister, Rhonda McIlvoy, approached the court and reported that she had overheard one of the members of the jury pool discussing Houck, who is on trial for four felony counts of theft, and his connection to another suspected crime.

“‘This is about that murder case,’ ” McIlvoy claimed the potential juror told a large group of others in the foyer outside the courtroom. “‘You know, the car found on the Bluegrass Parkway.’ ”

She said the juror then made some sort of “hand signal.”

 Nelson Circuit Court Judge Jack Seay called the juror in and questioned her about the conversation. The woman acknowledged she had a conversation with other members of the jury pool but said she never discussed details.

She said she had been getting ready for work a couple of weeks prior and had heard on the Bowling Green TV station WBKO that a Nelson County trial had been moved to Warren. During the break she had looked it up on her phone, she said.

She said she “didn’t read much” of the coverage, “just skimmed it.”

But that was enough to strike her from the jury, and posed an even more confounding series of obstacles for the judge and lawyers.

How to identify what other jury pool members she had spoken with, and how much she had shared, without biasing them or others against Houck? How to ensure others had not pulled out their phones and searched for Brooks Houck’s name?

“Questioning could further taint” the jury, said Alex Dathorne, one of Houck’s attorneys.

The judge considered confiscating the jury pool member’s phone and searching it, but opted to remove her and indirectly poll the jurors.

After dismissing the woman over her independent research, Seay asked the remaining 29 pool members, as well as several dozen other alternates, whether anyone had discussed the case in the foyer. No one reported an improper discussion.

The situation illustrated an ongoing problem not only with this case, but with limiting jurors’ exposure to pretrial information on high-profile cases, especially when most people have a smartphone and are constantly tethered to the internet.

The problem of pretrial publicity has been a recurring problem with the Houck case, in particular. The trial was moved to Warren County because Houck is the suspect in an unrelated criminal investigation into the July 2015 disappearance of his former girlfriend, Crystal Rogers. Defense attorneys and prosecutors agreed it would prove problematic to find a fair jury in Nelson County.

But the Rogers case has drawn attention from regional and national media outlets as well, including a six-part Oxygen Network series last summer.

Seay chose the Bowling Green area over others in the Louisville television market specifically to avoid such complications from pretrial media coverage. The one jury pool member was the only one to mention seeing pretrial coverage.

The complication was enough to push the trial onto a late track early in the process, though. It was after 1 p.m. Central time before a jury of 12 members and three alternates were empaneled.

After an hour lunch break and arguments over a pending motion, Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Chip McKay did not get started on his opening arguments until after 2 p.m. Central.

Prosecutors presented four of 20 potential witnesses over two hours of testimony. Most of the testimony was succinct and the defense had no questions for some of them.

Nelson County PVA Barbara Tichenor testified to Houck’s property holdings. She said as of 2017 Houck owned 129 parcels of property that included 77 with some sort of improvement on it, such as a building. Houck stands accused of stealing roofing shingles for some of his construction sites from Lowe’s home improvement store last year.

Bardstown Police Officer Andrew Riley was the officer who presented the evidence for indictment to a grand jury and testified briefly about receiving the complaint from Lowes’ loss prevention investigators. He acknowledged under cross-examination that he did little to no investigation, but rather took the information provided by the corporate employees.

Two Bardstown Lowe’s managers also testified, one by pre-recorded video deposition because he was unavailable for the court date. Both described Houck as a frequent customer.

Seay convened the hearings for the day shortly before 5 p.m. Central. 

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the expected witness for Wednesday morning.