Trial begins in death of former county foster child

Tuesday, Oct 4 2011, 2:20 pm

None of the 12 people called to the jury box knew Danny Hembree.

None said Monday afternoon that they knew Heather Catterton, the girl Hembree is accused of slaying.

Catterton spent much of her life as a foster child in Cleveland County.

But one woman felt she needed to speak up as to why she couldn’t sit on the jury for the capital murder case.

Twelve jurors will decide whether or not Hembree, 49, killed Catterton and dumped her half-naked body in a culvert in York County, S.C., in 2009.

Several members of the jury pool, which will include three alternates, told Superior Court Judge Beverly Beal of life circumstances that would make a six- to eight-week trial difficult for them: school, medical problems, children at home. Many of those telling their tales of woe were dismissed before names were called to fill the jury box.

By late afternoon the first potential jurors took their seats in the box while nearly 100 others filled the audience, some being forced to stand due to lack of space.

Beal began questioning potential jurors, asking about their residency and occupation. Gaston County District Attorney Locke Bell threw out a few questions.

The room was cleared when one of the possible jurors said she knew an important name in the case.

Once alone in the jury box the woman said she was a distant relative of Randi Saldana, another woman Hembree is accused of killing in 2009.

The potential juror said she and her family have talked about the case. Many of them have already formed an opinion of Hembree’s guilt, she said.

“It might be really awkward for me to be on the jury,” she told Beal.

Beal eventually agreed and dismissed the woman.

Hembree faces three first-degree murder charges. The trial that began Monday will address solely the death of 17-year-old Catterton.

Police arrested Hembree for the deaths of Saldana and Catterton in December 2009.

During the course of their investigation, detectives say they uncovered new evidence that pointed to Hembree as the killer in the death of Deborah Ratchford. The 30-year-old woman’s slaying had gone unsolved since she was found dead in a Gastonia graveyard in 1992.

Police have said that Hembree knew Catterton and 30-year-old Saldana. He dated Catterton’s older sister, and they all ran in the same circles.

Investigators have said that the trio lived an at-risk lifestyle.

Hembree’s mother, sister and son spent the day watching the proceedings. They gave modest waves as the tall man walked into the courtroom wearing a lime green shirt and khaki pants. He took his seat between his attorneys, Brent Ratchford and Rick Beam.

Catterton’s family sat behind Bell and Assistant District Attorney Stephanie Hamlin.

Jurors filled out a six-page questionnaire that was handed to the attorneys late in the day Monday.

Finding 15 impartial people who are willing to consider the death penalty might be time consuming, according to Beam.

Jury selection could take more than a week, and the trial could go on for two months.

Attorneys barely scratched the surface in questioning the jury panel before Beal adjourned for the day. That practice will resume at 9:30 a.m. today.