Crime

8 jurors selected on day 1 of murder trial tied to killing of Syracuse University student

Michael Burke | Senior Staff Writer

Inside the Syracuse Criminal Courthouse on Monday, the murder trial of the two men accused of killing a Syracuse University student began.

Two men and six women were sworn in Monday to serve on the jury in the murder trial of the two men accused of killing a Syracuse University student last fall.

Dozens of potential jurors were considered throughout the day, which marked the start of a trial that Judge John Brunetti expects will last up to two weeks. The remaining four jurors and at least two alternates will be chosen from a new pool Tuesday morning, with opening arguments slated to begin in the afternoon.

Cameron Isaac, 24, and Ninimbe Mitchell, 20, face first- and second-degree murder charges, respectively, in connection to the death of Xiaopeng “Pippen” Yuan.

Yuan, of China, was an SU student at the time he was found dead last September. Authorities allege that Isaac robbed and killed Yuan during a drug deal, and that Mitchell acted as an accomplice as Isaac’s getaway driver.

On Monday, Onondaga County District Attorney William Fitzpatrick and defense attorneys warned of a trial that will feature unsettling details and gruesome evidence, urging potential jurors to remain unbiased despite the case’s nature.

“You’re going to see pictures that will disturb you,” said Paul Carey, a defense attorney who represents Mitchell. “You’re going to hear things that will disturb you.”

Isaac and Mitchell were each present in the courtroom and sat beside their respective defense attorneys: William Sullivan and Carey. Neither defendant spoke throughout the day, aside from leaning in at times to whisper with their attorneys. The trial is taking place at the criminal courthouse in downtown Syracuse.

Family members of both defendants watched from the back of the courtroom throughout the day. Potential jurors filed in just after 11 a.m.

Brunetti told potential jurors the trial will “almost definitely” last into next week, and asked them to prepare mentally for the possibility that it lasts into next Friday. He also said the selected jurors will be instructed to give separate consideration to Isaac and Mitchell and the charges against them.

Mitchell’s defense team will argue that he didn’t know of Isaac’s plan to rob and kill Yuan when he agreed to drive him to and pick him up from the Springfield Garden Apartments in DeWitt, where the murder allegedly occurred.

Brunetti previously denied the defense’s motion for severance, which is why Isaac and Mitchell are being tried simultaneously.

Sullivan, Isaac’s lawyer, twice on Monday requested that Brunetti reconsider the severance motion, arguing that Mitchell’s defense will essentially incriminate Isaac.

Brunetti declined to rule on those requests Monday, saying he needs to “see how the events unfold” during the trial before reconsidering.

Most of the jurors in Monday’s pool were dismissed after being called one-by-one to speak privately with Brunetti, the prosecution and the defense. Brunetti, Fitzpatrick and the defense attorneys then questioned and addressed about 25 potential jurors in front of the courtroom.

Brunetti read a list of more than 30 potential witnesses to the potential jurors, including multiple family members of the defendants. An SU student, Evan Dourdas, was also named as a potential witness. Dourdas formerly played as a walk-on for the men’s basketball team.

Fitzpatrick informed the potential jurors that Yuan was an active marijuana dealer at the time he died, asking them to pledge that they wouldn’t come to the conclusion that Yuan “had it coming” because he dealt drugs.

The district attorney also asked the potential jurors, if selected, to use their common sense and consider their own life experiences when deciding a verdict.

“Bring those things in with you,” he said. “Promise me that.”

Sullivan, the attorney for Isaac, also brought up Yuan’s status as a marijuana dealer and told potential jurors that “there are other people with whom he met” and “other places where he dealt.”

“Promise me you’ll consider those things,” he said, prompting nods from the potential jurors.

Authorities discovered Yuan dead on Caton Drive at the Springfield Garden Apartments on Sept. 30.

Drugs were found in his car upon law enforcement’s arrival, which lead officials to believe his death was a drug deal gone wrong.

The remaining four jurors, and between two and four alternates, will be picked when jury selection resumes at 10:15 a.m. on Tuesday. Brunetti said he expects the jury to be finalized by midday, with opening arguments to begin shortly thereafter.

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