Ronelle Wilcox and the Voir Dire
After lunch, Elmer Ross still had the floor. His first question was answered by Juror #2, Ronelle Wilcox. My focus will be on her for the rest of the voir dire. [By the way, I need to remind you that this exploration of Ms. Wilcox’s role in the voir dire proceedings has nothing to do with Steve’s actual innocence, but it is directly related to why he was convicted.]
I think Ronelle Wilcox was intentionally trying to get on the jury. I’m not going to say that she had help getting placed in the #2 slot (as interesting as it is to think about that possibility), but her position right in front made it that much more likely that she would get picked as long as she didn’t say or do anything that would make one of the attorneys question her qualifications. She spoke up twice during the voir dire, but it was the times she didn’t say anything that make me feel certain she was angling to become a jury member.
The first mention of Ms. Wilcox in the record was after Ross’ first question. He read a list of potential witnesses for the trial, “Hanna Penderfield, Darla Belisle, Blake Goudy, Marri Sirois, Ada Dixon, Joshua Chilmark, Rhonda Bresnick, Tiffany Sperger, Craig Conner, and Willard Knox,” and asked, “Anyone on the left side of the room recognize any of those names? We will start with the first row.”
Ronelle Wilcox, who was now sitting on the front row in a roomy space all her own (after Jurors 1 and 3 had been excused earlier), raised her hand. Ross said, “Juror No. 2, who do you recognize?” Wilcox said, “Craig Conner.” When asked how she knew him, she said, “He dated my daughter in high school.” Ross asked her if that would make it uncomfortable for her to be a juror, and she said, “No.”
There were two other names on Elmer Ross’ list that that you probably have recognized by now, the expert witnesses Blake Goudy and Ada Dixon. Ms. Wilcox had a connection with both of them (one connection much stronger than the other), but when she admitted to knowing Craig Conner, she said nothing about either Goudy or Dixon. Ross was trying to establish whether there was a connection to any of those people because anyone with too strong a bond with one of them could end up jeopardizing his case, opening an avenue for a potential mistrial. After the mistrial the month before, he couldn’t afford that. Cleveland Sanford was also watching the venirepersons for such connections, because he might need to use strikes against people who could be biased against Steve.
As Ross moved around the room, several other people said that they knew some of the people on his list. Goudy was recognized by one person, and Ada Dixon was recognized by seven. Sheriff’s Deputy Willard Knox came out on top with eight people who knew him or knew of him. Others on the list were recognized as well, of course, but we’re going to focus on Goudy and Dixon.
Ross had to be standing near Ms. Wilcox while he talked to some of the people behind her on the second and third rows. She would have heard Dixon’s and Goudy’s names when Ross read them aloud, and then over and over again when people around her spoke about them, but Wilcox only mentioned Craig Conner, no one else.
When I called Wilcox in 2016, I asked her, “Did you recognize either of the names Ada Dixon or Blake Goudy? Those were the two I was interested in. Do you remember how you answered to those?” She said, “No, not …I knew who Ada Dixon was. I knew what she did in town, but other than that, no, that’s all I knew,” adding, as if to emphasize her point, “I just knew what her profession was.”
[She seems to be fumbling a bit, doesn’t she, maybe over-explaining it?]
Even if Wilcox didn’t know Ada Dixon personally, but only knew of her, why didn’t she include her name along with Craig Conner’s when she spoke up? Several others mentioned knowing more than just one of the people on Ross’ list. If Wilcox had known Dixon personally, though, she definitely should have mentioned her, shouldn’t she? Hang on to that thought. We’re just getting started with Ronelle Wilcox.
After Ross was through, Cleveland Sanford got his turn to address the panel. He began by giving them some personal information, as Ross had. He talked about his educational background and his family. He told them he lived in Collinson, a town about a third the size of Deep Springs, about seventy miles away. Everyone on the panel would likely have known where Collinson was. Then Sanford said, “I don’t qualify under the question about CASA and Cradle’s Rest and victims compensation fund.” That statement should have raised a red flag for Wilcox because she was definitely familiar with at least one of those items, and likely with all three.
He then told a brief story that should have caused Ms. Wilcox’s ears to perk up a little more. It was about how he had grown up helping his dad, who was a veterinarian; and also about a time when he had a miserable experience with the removal of some teeth. He said that if this trial were a civil trial, and there was a dentist on one side in dispute with a rancher, “at the beginning, based on my background, I would have a leaning to want to find in favor of the rancher as opposed to the dentist.” He explained. “The law says we’re looking for a bias or a prejudice,” but his take on it was that they were really “trying to find out if someone has a leaning or a pre-judgment strictly to make sure that both sides start even.”
A thinking individual, like Ms. Wilcox, if she wanted to get on this jury (for whatever reason), who had just listened to the defense attorney say that he personally wouldn’t have been able to get on this jury if he had an association with a group like CASA, would realize that CASA or probably anything dealing with abused children were subjects she had better not mention.
Sanford, after asking some general questions about the law (like reasonable doubt and wrongful accusations) asked, “Is there anybody here that has never broken the law? I mean never had a speeding ticket, never had any problems with the law? Surely there is somebody.” Ronelle Wilcox raised her hand, and Sanford asked, “You’ve never had a speeding ticket?” Ross objected to Sanford asking personal histories of the panel but Judge Hawes overruled that, and Sanford was allowed to continue.
He asked her, “No. 2, if I understand you correctly, you’ve never been — you’ve never been convicted of a crime?” Wilcox said, “Yes.” Sanford asked her if it was safe to assume that she wouldn’t “commit a felony in the next five years,” to which she answered, “No. I may be charged with one, whether I commit it or not.”
She had already answered his next question for him. He was trying to point out that anyone could end up in Steve’s position simply by someone accusing them of a crime. Her response showed that she was intelligent, was paying attention, and knew exactly what to say.
Sanford continued his voir dire, shifting to questions about people that the members of the jury pool may have known or had associations with. He asked about people in the legal profession or people who worked for the courts. He asked about people in law enforcement, police, probation, parole, etc. Several people answered, and Sanford discussed with each of them whether they could be fair and impartial. Ms. Wilcox was silent through all of that.
Then [here’s the important bit], he said: “Does anyone here work for or have a family member or close friend that works in any sort of position dealing with abused victims? By that, I mean, basically working in a shelter of some form, anything that would have special training dealing with abused, possibly work as a CASA rep or a psychologist, anything along those lines? Let’s start on the first row on the left side. Anybody?” [There was no response from the first row.] “Second row?”
Juror #14 was the first to raise her hand. She said that her daughter used to work for the Texas Youth Commission (TYC), a juvenile correction facility, and was now a social worker. Others spoke up as well. Juror #15, who had earlier said she was working for TYC, said her husband “works as a provider in a therapy home.” When asked what kind of provider, she said, “A respite provider.” Juror #20 said that his son has foster kids. Juror #30 said that the woman she cleans house for works at the TYC, and “they have foster children.” Juror #41, Penny Jo Beck, said, “My daughter, while she was getting her degree, worked for several facilities in the past.” [She named them, one was a children’s home]. Ms. Beck added, “She is now a counselor at Bloom Schools.” Juror #40 said “When I was younger, we used to have foster children in our home. My aunt is a social worker at a hospital. I know several foster children, went to school with a lot of them.” Aside from Ms. Beck, who became the alternate juror, none of the others got on the jury.
Ronelle Wilcox did not raise her hand or speak up in response to that question or to the earlier ones about Dixon and Goudy, and she did get on the jury. If she had answered the CASA question honestly, do you think she would have been selected?
The next post will go deeper into Wilcox’s connection to CASA, and why knowing about that connection would have been so important to Steve’s defense.
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