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Jury seated in murder trial of Williston man who claimed shootings were self-defense

Attorney Jeff Nehring, center, standing, questions potential jurors during the first day of the murder trial of his client, Lamar Putney, left, seated. Photo by Williston Herald.

WILLISTON, N.D. — The second day of the murder trial of Lamar Putney will begin with opening statements by the prosecution and defense, after the court spent nearly six hours Monday, Jan. 29, selecting a jury.

A pool of about 60 potential jurors were questioned about their relationships to the victims, possible witnesses, the defendant and others, as well as their thoughts on self-defense and the appropriate use of force. Just after 4 p.m. Monday, Northwest District Judge Kirsten Sjue swore in a panel of 14 — 12 jurors and two alternates — and gave them preliminary instructions. The jury, made up of an equal number of men and women, will start hearing evidence Tuesday after opening arguments. The trial is scheduled to last two weeks.

The question the jury will need to decide is not whether Putney shot two men in May 2016, but why.

Putney was briefly detained after he told police he shot and killed Donzell Washington and Diandre Lott at his Williston apartment on May 17, 2016. He claimed he had shot the men in self-defense when they tried to rob him, and he was released later that day. Putney was arrested in September 2016 and charged with two counts of murder.

In court filings, Putney's attorney, Jeff Nehring, has laid out the basics of what Putney says happened that day.

In one motion, Nehring wrote that on May 17, 2016, Washington and Lott came to see Putney about a car Putney had for sale, and that the conversation turned to Putney's collection of guns. Nehring wrote that Putney allowed Lott to hold one of his pistols and that Lott pointed the gun at Putney and said the pair were going to take the guns. Washington then said they didn't want to kill Putney and reached toward his waistband, Nehring wrote.

Putney retrieved one of his guns and shot the pair to death, then had a woman who was in the apartment with him call 911, according to Nehring's explanation.

In charging documents, police and prosecutors have claimed that Putney was arrested after the North Dakota State Crime Lab examined the guns found in Putney's apartment and didn't find Lott or Washington's fingerprints or DNA on any of them.

Police also said that Putney's story changed multiple times during questioning, raising questions about whether he was telling the truth.

Putney has been held on $2 million bond since his arrest, and during that time his communications have often been restricted. Nathan Madden, assistant state's attorney for Williams County, has argued that Putney has tried to reach out to witnesses and claimed Putney's associates have threatened potential witnesses.

On Friday, Sjue, who is presiding over the trial, ordered that the only people Putney could speak with until the trial was over were his legal team, his wife and his young son.

On Monday, Putney sat at the defense table with his attorneys dressed in a suit and tie. Sjue has given permission for Putney to appear without handcuffs or leg shackles when the jury is present, a standard condition to prevent prejudicing the jurors.

Monday was taken up almost entirely with jury selection. Nehring used his questions to help lay the foundation for Putney's defense.

He asked potential jurors about whether they'd ever had to make a split-second decision, whether they'd ever had to use force to defend themselves, whether they'd ever been robbed and their thoughts on self-defense.

Madden, who is the lead prosecutor on the case, also used questions to set up the state's case. He asked the pool about how believable they found someone who offered up changing stories or explanations, what they thought constituted reasonable doubt and about what they had done in situations where a gun they were using jammed.

He also set up a rebuttal to the defense claim that Putney had allowed Lott, who had been convicted of robbery in 2014, to handle a gun, despite the fact Putney was aware of Lott's criminal record.

"If you knew someone to have a violent past or a criminal past, how many would invite them into your home?" Madden asked.

Only one hand went up. After a follow-up question, the man who had raised his hand admitted that he would not give a person like that a gun. He was not among those selected for the jury.