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Trial begins for woman charged in connection with 2004 killing of husband

Monday, June 21, 2010 | 9:03 p.m. CDT; updated 1:14 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, June 22, 2010

COLUMBIA — Tausha L. Fields removed her dark-framed glasses and rubbed the bridge of her nose. It was nearing 4:30 p.m., and court proceedings had begun hours ago. She tucked her hands under the defense table and glanced around the courtroom.

Fields (who also goes by the surname Morton), 34, is charged with first-degree murder and armed criminal action in connection with the 2004 killing of her estranged husband, Mitchell Kemp.

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Jury selection began Monday afternoon for a trial expected to extend into next week.

The long and complicated selection process — which ended just before 7 p.m. — mirrored what will likely be a long and complicated trial, said Judge Gary Oxenhandler, who will be hearing the case. He thanked the more than 75 potential jurors for their candor, cooperation and graciousness.

Teams of prosecuting and defense attorneys spent several hours questioning the group about various issues that may arise during the trial.

Prosecutor Richard Hicks questioned potential jurors about their feelings on vigilantism and premeditated crime. He also asked whether the candidates would see testimony by police officers or experts as automatically credible.

Public defender Paul Hood discussed several specific aspects of the crime — including Fields' marital infidelity and the fact she did not report the murder — and asked potential jurors if their moral and emotional judgments might overwhelm their legal ones.

"Will you keep an open mind?" Hood said repeatedly. 

Both sides asked questions about relationships between potential jurors, the attorneys and others involved in the case.

Throughout the five and a half hours of questioning and deliberation — stalled briefly by computer problems — potential jurors voiced concerns and asked questions about their participation in the trial.

One man worried about his poor hearing; others admitted their failing memories and short-attention spans. Still others fretted over the magnitude of the decision they could be asked to make. But very few said they felt these issues would interfere with their ability to be impartial.

Eventually, 15 jurors were selected — 12 women and 3 men — for a panel that includes three alternates.

Fields is accused of "luring (Kemp) under false pretenses" to the residence she shared with Gregory Morton in 2004. There, according to police reports, Morton shot Kemp multiple times and then buried him in an unmarked grave on the Deer Creek Road property. Morton pleaded guilty to the murder of Kemp in 2009.

Kemp was soon reported missing by family members, who suggested he may have been murdered in Boone County. Detectives launched an investigation into his death, during which Fields claimed not to know where Kemp was or whether he was dead. She also denied being present during the murder.

During Monday's jury selection, Hood, one of Fields' attorneys, acknowledged that these were all lies.

According to the Missourian's article from 2009, the probable cause statement said Fields had admitted to an acquaintance — identified only as K.J. — that she had participated in Kemp's murder.

In August 2008, Fields led detectives to the makeshift grave. DNA analysis performed by the Missouri State Highway Patrol Crime Lab identified the remains as Kemp's, and an autopsy at the Boone County Medical Examiner's Office ruled the death a homicide.

Less than six months later, Fields was arrested, and in January 2009, she was extradited to Boone County from Galveston County, Texas.

Since then, Fields has been held at the Boone County Jail on $1 million cash bond, according to previous Missourian coverage.

Fields' trial follows that of Morton, her co-defendant and ex-husband, who pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in June 2009. Morton entered a plea agreement with the state and received a reduced sentence in exchange for his testimony against Fields.

Morton's plea bargain was a subject of special interest for both sides of the trial on Monday. Hicks asked potential jurors what they thought of plea agreements and if they would doubt Morton's credibility because he is a convict. At issue was also the fact that Fields is being tried for crimes with greater penalties than what Morton was charged with, even though she is being tried as an accessory.

Hood said part of the defense's argument will be based on discrediting Morton's testimony and Hicks' involvement in that case.

The trial continues at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday with opening statements.

Margaret Niemiec contributed to this article.


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