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Jury seated in coach slaying trial

SHELL ROCK, Iowa (AP) -- A 16-member jury was seated Thursday in the trial of a man accused of killing his former high school football coach, following two days of snowstorm delays and a series of seemingly odd questions from attorneys.

Opening statements begin Friday at the Butler County Courthouse in Allison in the trial of Mark D. Becker, 24, who is accused of gunning down former Aplington-Parkersburg High School football coach Ed Thomas.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys spent two days parsing through potential jurors' biases and prejudices.

"This is our only chance to try to talk to each of you so we can try to determine if we have 12 jurors and four alternates who can be impartial in this case," said Assistant Iowa Attorney General Andy Prosser.

Prosser focused on the standards of evidence potential jurors would need to consider, while defense attorney Susan Flander asked whether they could find a defendant not guilty by reason of insanity.

Flander has said Becker will plead not guilty by reason of insanity or diminished responsibility.

Becker is accused of gunning down the coach in the school's weight room in front of more than 20 students last June 24.

Thomas, who led the northeast Iowa team for 34 seasons, was the NFL High School Coach of the Year in 2005 and four of his players are now in the NFL.

His slaying drew national attention, and nearly every potential juror said by show of hands that he or she had heard about the shooting.

"I just think I'm going to have an extremely difficult time flushing the information ... just because of the extreme amount of publicity," one man said.

Prosser and Flander also asked personal questions that seemed to have nothing to do with the proceedings, leading to a few moments of levity.

One potential juror who had previously met Becker said she was having trouble putting aside her emotions and couldn't judge the case fairly. Prosser than began asking her about her hobbies and interests.

"I feel like I'm on a dating game!" the woman said, to loud laughs throughout the auditorium.

Flander later quizzed potential jurors on the organization of their sock drawers, their opinions on TV host Nancy Grace and where they would like to spend a week. With temperatures near 20 degrees in Shell Rock on Thursday, answers included Arizona, Florida and a beach in Jamaica.

Becker attended the proceedings, dressed Thursday in an untucked white button-down shirt and khaki slacks. He was not in handcuffs, as he had been in pretrial hearings.

As the selection process neared its conclusion, a series of potential jurors told the attorneys they couldn't render an impartial verdict or didn't consider insanity a valid defense.

"You know the questions," Prosser said to one man at 5:30 p.m., more than eight hours after the process began Thursday. "Do you think you could be fair?"

The man responded that he couldn't, and was summarily excused, setting off groans and muttering from the crowd. His replacement, a woman, hurried to the front of the auditorium.

"If you found that Mark Becker committed the act, would you then be able to look at the insanity instruction ... and render a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity?" Flander asked.

She said she could and was allowed to remain.

The small-town nature of the proceeding in a county of about 14,500 was evident. Potential jurors claimed to know or have had contact with eight of the prosecution's 25 witnesses. Two knew or had met Becker, and six knew Thomas. One potential juror's two sons played football for Thomas. There were three husband-and-wife couples among the 220 people convened.

If nothing else, the approximately 130 people who weren't questioned received a series of civics lessons, beginning with Iowa District Court Judge Stephen Carroll's lecture Wednesday that quoted Thomas Jefferson and stressed the importance of jury duty. On Thursday, Flander referenced the Magna Carta, and asked potential jurors if they thought trials by water -- in which the innocent drowned and the guilty lived -- were fair.

None did.