ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. —
Prosecutors and defense attorneys will deliver their opening statements Monday in the capital murder trial of an Arizona inmate who escaped from prison and is accused of killing an Oklahoma couple who were traveling through New Mexico.
John McCluskey is facing 20 counts in the 2010 carjacking and slaying of Gary and Linda Haas, of Tecumseh, Okla., formerly of McDonald County, Mo. He’s the last of three defendants to be tried in the case. The other two pleaded guilty and will likely testify during the trial.
Despite admissions made to authorities following his arrest, McCluskey’s defense team says he didn’t kill the Haases and didn’t intend for them to die that August day in eastern New Mexico.
Prosecutors are ready to prove otherwise. They have indicated in court documents that as many as 100 witnesses could be called and they have more than 1,000 exhibits to show the jury, including photographs, and hours of audio and video.
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. Dozens of prospective jurors were questioned about everything from their understanding of the justice system to their opinions about the death penalty.
McCluskey’s attorneys filed a motion hours before the final panel was to be selected in hopes of delaying the case with claims that minorities were underrepresented in the jury pool. U.S. District Judge Judith Herrera cleared the way for opening statements to begin with an order issued last week.
McCluskey has 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 said they were intent on moving toward 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.
A plume of black smoke is what led a rancher to the crime scene. The authorities were then called in.
McCluskey was one of three prisoners who escaped from a medium-security prison near Kingman, Ariz., 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 spree that sparked a three-week nationwide manhunt.
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.