Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Jury Selection in Hosanna Church Trial

Jury selection starts for church member accused of child rape

AMITE, La. -- Tales of devil worship will not play a major role in the trial of a man accused of having sex with children as part of occult rituals alleged to have occurred among members of a now-defunct south Louisiana church, a prosecutor said.

Jury selection began Tuesday morning in the case of Austin "Trey" Bernard III, 39, of Hammond, who faces three counts of aggravated rape involving children, including a 2-year-old girl.

Bernard is the first of seven members of Hosanna Church in Ponchatoula who are charged in the case. He is the first to go on trial since the allegations broke in 2005. The others are free on bail, awaiting trial.

The crimes allegeldy occurred in 2001 and 2002 and there were reports that satanic rituals and the killing of dogs and cats were involved. But Don Wall, an assistant district attorney in Tangipahoa Parish, told potential jurors that there would be little mention of that at trial because devil worship is not against the law.

"It is against the law to have sex with a child under 12," he said.

Wall also noted that there would be little or no physical evidence because so much time passed between the alleged crimes and the reporting of them.

"This is not CSI. There is no DNA, not a lot of physical evidence. Sometimes it is just people telling you what happened," Wall said.

Three jurors had been seated as of early afternoon from among close to 80 potential jurors who showed up at the courthouse Tuesday for the trial.

Bernard faced three counts of aggravated rape, including two counts involving a 2-year-old girl and one involving a juvenile boy. Conviction would mean life in prison for Bernard. Prosecutors decided against seeking the death penalty.

State District Judge Doug Hughes told potential jurors he expects the trial to last four or five days. However, public defender Al Bensabat, who represents Bernard, said it will be difficult to get a jury in Tangipahoa Parish, where the case has drawn extensive publicity. "It's been tried in the press for two years," Bensabat said.

Last week, the 1st Circuit Court of Appeal in Baton Rouge rejected defense appeals concerning the testimony of possible state witnesses.

Hughes ruled on Oct. 9 that two young men, now ages 21 and 17, can take the witness stand, even though the prosecution and defense attorneys told the judge that they anticipate they will testify that they were not abused when they were minors. If so, their testimony would conflict with previous statements the men gave to psychiatrists and law enforcement authorities, attorneys have said in court hearings.

The men also are considered witnesses to the abuse of the girl, Wall has said. The girl is not expected to testify.

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