COOPERSTOWN — Seven jurors for an at least 14-member jury were selected Tuesday at the Otsego County Courthouse in Cooperstown during the first day of the criminal trial for fatal arson suspect Gabriel Truitt.
Truitt, 33, of Oneonta, was charged after the Dec. 29, 2018, fire that killed former Oneonta firefighter John Heller. Truitt is charged with first-degree arson, first degree murder and two counts of second-degree murder.
Truitt allegedly set fire to a house on 5 Walling Ave., which housed the Heller family and Truitt's ex-girlfriend, Heather Engler, in separate apartments. Heller is credited with saving his fiancee, Amber Roe, and his four nephews by evacuating them from their burning apartment.
Truitt sat quietly in the courtroom with his attorney, Michael Trosset of Fly Creek, *Attorney David Taylor of Hartwick and Trosset's assistant, Lisa Harvey. At the table next to him sat Otsego County District Attorney John Muehl and assistant district attorneys William Green and Chris DiDonna.
The remaining jurors will be selected Wednesday, Jan. 22, Otsego County Court Chief Clerk Michael McGovern said. The complete jury will consist of 12 jurors and two to four alternate jurors, he said.
Alternate jurors take the place of jurors who can't serve for reasons such as illness, according to the American Bar Association's website.
The trial is expected to take up to two weeks, Otsego County Judge Brian Burns said. Addressing the potential jury pool before the selection process began, Burns said the case comes to the court by way of an indictment.. The jury must not consider the indictment as evidence in the case, and Truitt's decision to testify or not shouldn't sway the jury's decision, Burns said.
"The defendant is not required to prove to you he is not guilty," Burns said.
To the accusations in the indictment, Truitt answered that he is not guilty, Burns said, and the defendant is assumed to be innocent until proven otherwise. The responsibility of the jury is to determine whether Truitt is guilty or not guilty based on application of law to the facts, and Burns' role is to ensure a fair and orderly trial, he said.
"In a sense, we're both judges in this case," Burns said to the potential jurors. "I judge the law. It is not my responsibility to judge the facts on this case. You, and you alone, are responsible for that."
Jurors had to swear that they wouldn't let any relationship with or knowledge of members of the prosecution, defense or potential witnesses affect their ability to do their sworn duties as jurors.
The trial will resume at the Otsego County Courthouse on Wednesday, Jan. 22, at 9 a.m.
*Updated Tuesday, Jan. 28 at 1:18 a.m. to correct David Taylor's title
Shweta Karikehalli, staff writer, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 607-441-7221. Follow her @DS_ShwetaK on Twitter.