Jury selection began Monday in the federal trial of two men charged with serving as contract killers for a violent drug ring accused of moving cocaine from Mexico into Tennessee and several other states.
Clinton Lewis and Martin Lewis are charged with committing murders as members of a drug gang led by Craig Petties, who fled to Mexico and was placed on the U.S. Marshals' 15 most wanted list after being indicted in 2002.
Petties was accused of ordering from Mexico the killings of rivals, suspected informants and others in Memphis and Mississippi. Petties was captured in January 2008 and pleaded guilty last year to racketeering, money laundering and ordering four murders as part of his role as leader of the wide-ranging drug organization. He has not been sentenced, and is expected to testify during the trial.
The Lewises, who are cousins, face life in prison without parole if convicted on charges including racketeering-murder, conspiracy to distribute a controlled substance and money laundering. They have pleaded not guilty.
Several other drug ring members have already pleaded guilty to drug and racketeering charges and, like Petties, are expected to testify.
U.S. Attorney Edward Stanton has described the trial as one of the largest of its kind in West Tennessee. The drug ring is accused of working with a drug cartel in Mexico to move large amounts of cocaine and marijuana into Tennessee, Mississippi, Texas, Georgia and North Carolina starting in 1995.
U.S. District Judge Samuel Mays said Monday that 18 jurors will be selected from a panel of about 100 people. Twelve jurors will be asked to decide on a verdict, with the six others being dismissed before deliberations.
The jury will be brought to the courthouse from a secret location every day. To protect the jurors' safety, only the four defense attorneys and the two federal prosecutors will be permitted to know their identities.
Mays also ordered that the defendants be allowed to sit with their lawyers without handcuffs or other restraints, in efforts to avoid jury bias. The trial is expected to last three to four weeks.
Clinton Lewis, also known as "Goldie," is charged with the kidnapping and murder of Marcus Turner in September 2006, under orders from Petties. Turner's body was found in Olive Branch, Miss.
Martin Lewis, also known as "M," is charged with killing Mario McNeal in March 2007, also at the behest of Petties.
Before jury selection began Monday, Mays asked how the defendants were doing. Both said they were doing fine.
Mays then warned the defendants to remain calm during the trial, which will likely include some graphic testimony from gang members who already have pleaded guilty.
"I can't emphasize enough how important it is to keep your emotions under control," Mays said.
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)