DANBURY — Jury selection started last week in Danbury Superior Court in the trial of John S. Heath, 69, of Bridgewater, whom the state has charged with murder, alleging that he killed his wife Elizabeth, 32, in 1984 and then hid her body beneath the floor of a barn on a property at 89 Poverty Hollow Road in Newtown, where the couple had lived.
Ms Heath’s remains were discovered in April 2010 when the property’s current owners were renovating that barn and found her skeleton.
Newtown police arrested Mr Heath in April 2012, after which he pleaded not guilty to the murder charge.
The state’s evidence in the case is largely circumstantial.
On Tuesday, July 16, Supervising Assistant State’s Attorney Warren Murray, who is the prosecutor, and attorney Francis O’Reilly, who is Mr Heath’s special public defender, selected two people to serve on the 12-member jury – a Bethel man and a Danbury woman. Judge Robin Pavia is the trial judge.
On Wednesday, an additional three jurors reportedly were chosen, bringing the number of jurors to five.
Jury selection is scheduled to resume on August 6. Besides the 12 jurors, four alternates will be chosen.
Trial testimony is slated to start on September 25. The trial may run through the end of October. The prosecution’s presentation may run for four weeks or more, with the defense’s presentation running for a few days.
Before jury selection started on July 16, Judge Pavia asked Mr Heath whether he is physically able to go to trial on the murder charge.
“Yes,” he responded.
In his several court appearances since May 2102, Mr Heath has been seated in a wheelchair and provided with an oxygen supply, which he breathes through a cannula. The defendant, who is a former commercial painter, has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). The Vietnam War veteran also has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Mr O’Reilly had filed a motion with the court, asking that Mr Heath be medically examined to determine whether he could endure the rigors of a trial.
During his 15 months in jail since his arrest, Mr Heath has made numerous trips to the hospital for treatment of COPD, Mr O’Reilly said. The defendant has 20 percent of normal lung capacity, the lawyer added.
“There could be continuity-of-trial issues,” Mr O’Reilly said.
Mr O’Reilly said, “I don’t think he has psychiatric issues that would impede his ability to participate in a trial.”
Judge Pavia said the court would address any medical issues that arise as the case progresses. Such maters would include having sufficient oxygen available, providing suitable prisoner transportation, allowing rest breaks during the trial, and providing certain medical care to Mr Heath.
Judge Pavia asked Mr Heath whether he is interested in reaching a plea agreement with the state.
In such a case, Mr Heath would plead guilty to a criminal charge and his attorney would then argue for leniency in sentencing.
Mr Heath told Judge Pavia that after having discussed that matter with Mr O’Reilly, “I have come to the conclusion that I am innocent and I don’t want to plead ‘guilty’ to anything … I want my life back.”
The judge pointed out to Mr Heath that if he is found guilty at trial, the sentence that he would receive would be harsher than the sentence which he would receive through a plea agreement.
Judge Pavia explained that the potential sentence for a murder conviction in Connecticut ranges from 25 to 60 years of imprisonment, with 60 years considered to be a “life” sentence.
Mr Heath said, “I have a progressive lung disease. I don’t know how much time I have left. All those numbers are irrelevant to me.”
Thus, for a third time on July 16, Mr Heath entered a plea of “not guilty” to the murder charge. Earlier “not guilty” pleas came on July 12, 2012, and on May 1, 2012.
July 16 marked the 13th time that the Heath case has appeared on the court docket.
Judge Pavia discussed the case with 36 potential jurors in Courtroom 6 on July 16.
Mr Murray read a list of more than 80 potential witnesses for the prosecution, asking the jurors if they knew any of the people named. Many of those listed are Newtown police and state police officers who participated in the murder investigation.
Mr Murray said he would not be calling all of those people listed as witnesses.
“It’s case of a thousand details,” he said of the many aspects of the case that the prosecution would present in court.
While awaiting a jury trial on the murder charge, Mr Heath is being held on $1,002,500 bail at the Bridgeport Correctional Center.
The Heaths had been in the midst of a divorce in April 1984, when Mr Heath reported to Newtown police that his wife was missing.
Based on the skeletal evidence, which was inspected by the chief state medical examiner, there was the intent to kill Ms Heath, when considering that her facial bones were crushed inward and that her arm was broken, indicating her defensive actions during the fatal attack.
State police packaged Ms Heath’s skeletal remains in 183 separate containers for submission to the medical examiner.
Mr O’Reilly has argued that the state lacks evidence and is basing its murder case on “speculation and conjecture.”
The state will have a difficult time proving its allegations against Mr Heath beyond a reasonable doubt, Mr O’Reilly has said.
Mr Heath’s bail on the murder charge is $1 million. That bail was increased by $2,500 following an incident last September at the Bridgeport jail, after which state police lodged two additional criminal charges against Mr Heath. Mr Heath had allegedly assaulted a 51-year-old female nurse.
Mr Heath has pleaded not guilty to third-degree assault and second-degree breach of peace. That case is pending in Bridgeport Superior Court.