Jury seated as Emmet County murder trial continues

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

A 12-member jury and two alternates are in place to decide if a talented high school cross country runner is responsible for the death of a community college student in his hometown.

Lee Christensen was taken into custody and charged with first-degree murder just over one year ago. Prosecutors think he is responsible in the shooting death of Thomas Bortvit of Estherville. Christensen was 18 years old at the time.

Bortvit's disappearance was reported June 6, 2015 and investigators located the 19-year-old college student the following day in a rural part of Estherville. Christensen has been connected to the fatal shooting and was taken into custody just after midnight on June 8, 2015.

Attorneys and Christensen were seated at a conference table to the left of Judge David Lester. Assistant Iowa Attorney General Coleman McAllister and defense attorney Leon Spies of Iowa City posed a series of questions to the 34-member jury pool Wednesday afternoon.

McAllister wanted to find out if the prospective jurors were familiar with cellphones, texting and social media messaging platforms because Christensen's contact will family members by text may become a factor at trial.

Christensen took notes at the conference table as Spies began to question the jury pool. The defense attorney wanted to find out if jurors had any experience with firearms, including military and law enforcement service. The defense attorney also wanted to make sure jurors would presume Christensen's innocence unless the state satisfies its burden of proof.

Jury questioning ended just before 3 p.m. Wednesday. Spies and prosecutors each eliminated 10 potential jurors to narrow the jury pool from 34 members to the final dozen and a pair of alternates. The 14-member panel includes two men and 12 women.

Opening statements are scheduled to begin at about 9 a.m. Thursday at the Emmet County Courthouse in Estherville. The state will present evidence and testimony from its witnesses first. Spies will then present Christensen's defense.

Lester told jurors the case will continue beyond the weekend. Closing arguments are possible in the second half of next week. The judge said a conclusion before the July 4 weekend is possible.

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