By Allen Edmonds
ST. CHARLES – Nearly 14 years after the disappearance of Belton’s Kara Kopetsky and more than three years after his arrest following the disappearance of Raymore’s Jessica Runions, selection of the jury that will decide whether Kylr Yust is guilty of the murder of both women has begun.
More than 50 prospective jurors sat masked in evenly spaced folding chairs spread throughout the multi-purpose room floor of a Catholic parish hall near St. Charles’ historic downtown and riverfront Monday, while three long work tables stretched across the stage overlooking the scene.
The three-person prosecution team filled the table on the left side of the stage; Presiding Circuit Judge William Collins, his staff and Circuit Clerk Kim York filled the center table; and the three-person defense team and Yust occupied the table on the right side of the stage. Yust appeared unshackled in a navy blazer, olive slacks and white dress shirt.
Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Julie Tolle welcomed the group and immediately broke the news that the selected jurors would be transported to Cass County next Monday for what is expected to be a three-week trial. And when she asked if any “absolutely could not” be away from work home for three weeks, more than half of the group raised hands.
When questioned individually, a total of 28 of the 53 cited a variety of conflicts. Among the group were several single parents solely responsible for the care of their children, others that were care-givers for ill family members, some were sole proprietors that could not be away from work, and others said they were depended upon by their employers.
One man said he is responsible for the daily care of his livestock and that no one could fill in for him.
Two of the 53 had heard of the case, and more than 20 had either been the victims of, or closely connected with cases of domestic violence – an issue Tolle told the group would be a part of the case.
After a morning of painstaking group and individual questioning, Tolle gestured at Yust and told the prospective jurors that “as we sit here right now, under the law, he is presumed innocent. This is why it is absolutely critical that we have fair and impartial jurors.”
After a noon break, defense team member Molly Hastings quizzed both the group and individuals on a variety of issues, beginning by pointing at Yust and asking, “is there anyone here that thinks he looks like a murderer?” No hands were raised.
She went on to ask a series of questions that focused on the group’s understanding of the presumption of innocence and the sole responsibility of the prosecution to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt.
“If the state doesn’t prove its case to where you’re comfortable that it’s beyond a reasonable doubt in your mind, the defense doesn’t have to do a thing. You realize that’s what the presumption of innocence means, right?” Hastings asked.
She then drilled deeper into that concept, finding jury prospects that had remained quiet through the morning to call to the microphone and ask specifically whether they would feel comfortable finding the defendant innocent if he didn’t testify, or if the defense team didn’t put on a case.
She took pains to explain that neither scenario would necessarily happen in the upcoming trial, but that both were good tests of the panelists' understanding of the Constitutional principles involved in a criminal trial.
Following an afternoon break, lead defense attorney Sharon Turlington wrapped up the day by explaining that, even though Yust is charged with two counts of first-degree murder, the jury instructions would include the option of finding him guilty of second-degree murder – the difference being the lack of “cool reflection, however brief,” before committing the act.
“I’m not saying you will find him guilty of anything,” she said, but if they did, they would then be responsible for deliberating the penalty – likely choosing between a 30-year/life sentence, and a 10-year sentence. A first-degree finding of guilt would leave only one penalty option – life without parole.
She also asked if any prospective jurors were familiar with the culture of “death metal” music and bands, explaining that Yust had been a lead singer in such a band. “You understand that it’s just a type of music, right? There is dark imagery associated with that type of music, but because he was associated with it does not mean that he’s guilty of murder, you would agree?”
None of the panel seemed to indicate disagreement with the statement, nor did any of the group answer positively when Turlington asked if having a lot of tattoos is evidence someone is more likely to commit a crime. Yust was a tattoo artist and has quite of number of tattoos himself, she explained, though all were covered Monday by his dress clothing.
She also asked about the panel’s interest in true crime television shows and podcasts, probing deeper individually among those who answered that they did.
The group session wrapped up just before 4 p.m., when Collins released all but four of the prospective jurors until Wednesday. He and both teams of attorneys then held private conferences with those individuals, who all had indicated that they had issues they weren’t comfortable discussing in front of the group.