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Capital murder trial begins for Arizona fugitive
Monday - 8/19/2013, 11:30pm EDT
SUSAN MONTOYA BRYAN
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) -- John McCluskey was arrested wearing one of the victims' baseball caps. But his defense attorney said Monday prosecutors will be unable to prove that the escaped Arizona prison inmate shot and then incinerated a retired Oklahoma couple after they crossed paths with a trio of criminals at a highway rest area.
The government's whole case, Michael Burt said in opening statements, hangs solely on the testimony of his two alleged accomplices: one a man who has a history of violent crimes and drug abuse, the other a woman who the defense team contends has repeatedly lied to investigators.
Burt questioned their credibility, noting they both made deals with federal prosecutors and avoided the death penalty.
"Our defense is going to be the government can't prove without a reasonable doubt that John McCluskey pulled the trigger and killed Gary and Linda Haas," he said.
McCluskey is facing capital murder and a number of other charges in the 2010 carjacking and slaying of the retirees from Tecumseh, Okla.
Prosecutor Greg Fouratt said "unspeakable crimes" resulted from the tragic collision on Aug. 2, 2010, of the Oklahoma couple's annual camping trip to Colorado with the flight of McCluskey, a fellow escapee, and an accomplice.
"Ultimately this case is about the targeting, the carjacking, the shooting to death and the incinerating of a husband and wife," said Fouratt, who said the Haases were married more than 40 years.
Fouratt said his team plans to call about 50 witnesses and jurors will be shown a few hundred exhibits, including photographs and audio and video clips.
Testimony began Monday afternoon with a friend of the Haases and an investigator with the Arizona Department of Corrections who responded the night McCluskey and two other inmates escaped from a medium-security prison near Kingman, Ariz.
An audience that included family and friends of the victims packed the courtroom for Monday's proceedings. The trial is expected to last up to four months.
It took nearly three weeks for attorneys to settle on a jury of nine women and three men and four alternates. Dozens of prospective jurors were questioned about everything from their understanding of the justice system to their opinions about the death penalty.
McCluskey made no secret of his desire to steer clear of a trial and the death penalty. He agreed to plea negotiations earlier this year, but federal prosecutors were intent on moving to trial.
Prosecutors have said the Haases, both 61, were targeted for their pickup truck and travel trailer when they stopped at a rest area near the Texas-New Mexico state line.
According to court documents, they were forced at gunpoint to drive to a desolate spot off of Interstate 40, where they were then ordered into their trailer and shot. The truck and trailer were then driven miles down a series of dirt roads to a more remote location. The trailer was unhitched and torched, with the Haases' bodies inside.
It was two days before a ranch hand discovered the crime scene and called authorities. Among the charred debris were skull fragments, eyeglass frames and Linda Haas' wedding ring.
During Fouratt's opening statement, he displayed photos of the fugitives' weapons and the burned-out trailer.
To provide timelines for the separate trips of the victims and the fugitives, the prosecution showed images from surveillance cameras at various locations and traced their journey on a map. One of the surveillance images showed Gary Haas wearing his John Deere cap, the same cap that McCluskey was wearing when arrested.
McCluskey and the other prisoners escaped in July 2010, with the help of his cousin and fiance, Casslyn Welch. One of the inmates was quickly captured after a shootout with authorities in Colorado, while McCluskey, Welch and inmate Tracy Province embarked on a crime rampage that sparked a three-week nationwide manhunt.
Burt, the defense attorney, said the case is as much about two separate trips colliding as it is about "individuals seeking freedom." He pointed to the Haases enjoying the open road and the inmates taking advantage of an opportunity to get beyond the prison walls.
Province and Welch pleaded guilty last year to charges stemming from the Haases' deaths. Both face life sentences.
McCluskey was previously serving 15 years in Arizona for attempted second-degree murder, aggravated assault and discharge of a firearm.
Follow Susan Montoya Bryan at http://www.twitter.com/susanmbryanNM.
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.