BEDFORD — The first capital murder trial Bedford County has seen in decades started Monday with the meticulous jury selection process.
Attorneys won’t finish selecting the 14 jurors who’ll hear the case of alleged MS-13 gang member Kevin Josue Soto Bonilla until mid-afternoon today at the earliest, they estimated during Monday’s proceedings.
Soto Bonilla, 22, is the second defendant in the case of Raymond Wood’s murder to stand trial.
Wood, a 17-year-old from Lynchburg, was found dead and mutilated with stab wounds off of Roaring Run Road by a passing motorist March 27, 2017.
Much of the story behind Wood’s killing already has unfolded in the Bedford courtroom, since Victor Arnoldo Rodas was found guilty of first-degree murder in Wood’s death last fall and sentenced to 55 years in prison.
Rodas and another co-defendant were buying marijuana from Wood in Lynchburg when, after an exchange of threats, they decided to get revenge and take over selling weed by removing Wood, according to evidence presented in the case thus far.
Soto Bonilla traveled from Maryland to Lynchburg with three other men to help with the killing, according to testimony in the case. According to previous testimony from his co-defendant, Cristian Josue Sanchez-Gomez, Soto Bonilla helped pull Wood by his feet into the car when they kidnapped him and helped restrain him as they drove out into Bedford County.
When they stopped on Roaring Run Road, Soto Bonilla used a 17-inch ornate knife to stab Wood along with two other assailants, according to his co-defendant. Once they fled the scene, Soto Bonilla was told to bury it in a remote area about a mile away from where Wood’s body was found.
Soto Bonilla fled along with Sanchez Gomez and was arrested in New York close to six months later.
Along with three others, Soto Bonilla is charged with capital murder of Wood. Bedford Commonwealth’s Attorney Wes Nance is seeking the death penalty in his case.
Because of that, Soto Bonilla’s team has been granted broad leeway in building his defense with the help of experts, who flanked him in the courtroom Monday. And the selection of jurors who might decide whether he lives or dies proceeded slowly and carefully.
Bedford Circuit Court called on 84 county residents to show up for jury duty, but only 69 responded when their names were called out in the morning. Fourteen were dismissed in the first few hours of jury selection, with six of them saying they had knowledge of the case and wouldn’t be able to judge the case impartially.
A large share of potential jurors indicated they knew about the case and another large share indicated they had strong opinions on immigration. After a few rounds of larger group survey questions, the potential jurors were broken up into groups of three to be questioned further.
Nine potential jurors were interviewed Monday in that smaller setting. They were questioned about their opinions on the death penalty, their knowledge of MS-13, the time conflicts they might have for the trial, which is expected to take about two weeks, and their feelings on due process and criminal punishment for illegal immigrants.
Bedford Circuit Court Judge James Updike reminded the attorneys on several occasions a juror’s beliefs about the death penalty were not necessarily an issue, but rather their ability to follow the law when receiving instructions.
Jury selection will continue this morning.
Rachel Mahoney covers courts for The News & Advance. Reach her at (434) 385-5554.