Jury Pool Assembles for Trial in 1983 KFC Slayings

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NEW BOSTON, Texas — About 140 potential jurors showed up at the Bowie County Courthouse on Wednesday for the trial of a convicted burglar charged with the notorious Kentucky Fried Chicken murders, one of Texas' oldest unsolved mass murder cases.

Romeo Pinkerton, 49, of Tyler, is the first of two men to go on trial for the slayings of five people abducted during a Sept. 23, 1983, holdup of a KFC restaurant in Kilgore in East Texas. The five, all shot execution-style, were found the following morning about 15 miles away along a remote oilfield road.

Also charged in the almost 24-year-old case is Pinkerton's cousin, Darnell Hartsfield, 46. Like Pinkerton, Hartsfield is from Tyler and with a long criminal record. His trial likely will be next year.

Both men have pleaded not guilty. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.

"It's going to take a while to try this case," State District Judge J. Clay Gossett told the pool of potential jurors, warning it could be three to six weeks before a panel was seated, then another three to six weeks for the actual trial.

Pinkerton stood and was introduced to the jury pool by his lead attorney, Jeff Haas. Although Pinkerton was not handcuffed or shackled, authorities said he had been fitted with a leg brace under his blue pin-striped suit that impeded his ability to get around.

A few of the original pool of 350 potential jurors were excused earlier for health- or work-related reasons. Dozens of others responded with mailed notices that allowed them to be excused and some failed to show. About 30 people who reported Wednesday were asking the judge to be exempt.

For those who were qualified, their introduction to the case was filling out a 17-page, 120-item questionnaire to be reviewed by lawyers. Starting next week, potential jurors will be called individually as attorneys try to select a panel of 12 plus two alternates.

Gossett moved the trial about 90 miles north to Bowie County, in far northeast Texas, because of publicity in the area around Kilgore and Henderson, where the five victims were gunned down. Gossett anticipates the trial could take up to three months.

Ten of the questions on the jury questionnaire deal specifically with capital punishment. Others ask about the prospective jurors' religious and political preferences, their views on the criminal justice system and even the kind of vehicle they drive, whether they have bumper stickers and what the stickers say.

The questionnaire also asks whether they know any of the 216 people on the prosecution's witness list. The names include co-defendant Hartsfield and James Mankins, a Kilgore man charged with the murders in April 1995. Charges against Mankins were dropped after DNA tests exonerated him and the case continued to baffle investigators.

In 2001, a retired FBI agent, George Kieny, was hired by then Rusk County Sheriff James Stroud to take a new look at the voluminous material collected by investigators over the years.

As part of his investigation, Kieny interviewed and collected DNA samples from Pinkerton and Hartsfield. New DNA technology tied them to the slayings and led to the capital murder indictments against the pair in November 2005.

Four of the victims worked at the KFC in Kilgore, about 115 miles east of Dallas. The fifth was a friend of one of the employees.

They included assistant manager Mary Tyler, 37; co-workers Opie Ann Hughes, 39, and Joey Johnson and David Maxwell, both 20; and Monte Landers, 19, a friend of Johnson and Maxwell

Police believed about $2,000 was taken from a cash box at the restaurant.

When Hartsfield was indicted, he already was in prison. He received a 40-year sentence in 1995 for selling drugs. In 2003, he told a grand jury he wasn't at the restaurant. Prison records show he was arrested for aggravated robbery three days after the KFC slayings.

With the new DNA results, plus earlier witness accounts that put him there that night, prosecutors charged him with perjury. He was convicted and sentenced to life because of his criminal record, which also includes aggravated robbery, burglary and reckless endangerment.

Pinkerton has been in and out of prison at least five times. He told investigators he was locked up at the time of the slayings but records show he was paroled two days before the murders.

Even if Pinkerton is convicted and gets a death sentence, his eventual execution could be in doubt. Defense lawyers say they have evidence in his past of mental retardation, which under a U.S. Supreme Court ruling could prevent him from being put to death. Prosecutors are disputing the claims.