Finding impartial jurors could delay trial in Facebook video torture case

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Brittany Covington of Chicago; (clockwise from upper left) Tesfaye Cooper of Chicago; Jordan Hill of Carpentersville; and Tanishia Covington of Chicago. File Photo. | Chicago Police Department

Video of four black people abusing a white teenager in a Chicago apartment—and jeering “f— white people” and “f— Donald Trump”— became the subject of national news coverage and public outrage in early 2017.

That could make it hard to find impartial jurors if one or more of the defendants accused of starring in the viral Facebook video goes to trial, a Cook County judge said Thursday.

But Jordan Hill, who prosecutors said had befriended the 18-year-old victim, is likely to take his chances in front of a jury, Judge William Hooks said during a hearing at a the Leighton Criminal Court Building.

Hooks said he will want an extra-large jury pool of 200 to 300 people in hopes of finding people who haven’t made up their minds about a case about which millions of people have stated an opinion.

“The court remembers that the president of the United States, which at the time was Barack Obama, made mention of this case,” Hooks said, referring to Obama’s remark in a televised interview that the abuse on the video was “despicable.”

Hooks also said he recalled then-President-elect Donald Trump making reference to the case. It does not appear that Trump, who is no stranger to wading into debate on racially charged topics, did remark specifically on the case, though Fox News commentators and conservative corners of the Internet were filled with harsh criticism and death threats for Hill and co-defendants Tesfaye Cooper, Brittany Covington and her older sister, Tanishia Covington.

The four each were charged with as many as 50 counts, including aggravated battery, kidnapping and committing a hate crime.

Brittany Covington, who was 18 when she picked up the alleged victim’s cellphone and began videotaping as Hill and Cooper hit the teen and cut his hair and clothing with a knife, then forced him to drink from a toilet, entered a plea deal in December. Covington, the youngest of the four defendants, was sentenced to probation on top of the 11 months she’d already been jailed.

A video of Hill and the other defendants mocking and striking the victim was livestreamed by Brittany Covington on Facebook. Several different cuts of the video posted to YouTube each had been viewed several hundred times, including one that was watched more than 300,000 times in the weeks after it was recorded.

With three of the victims’ relatives in the courtroom Thursday, Tanishia Covington, 25, appeared ready to enter a plea deal Thursday, but Hooks said he would not approve it until either Cooper or Hill had either pleaded or gone to trial.

If there is a trial, it could not happen before spring because of steps needed to assemble such a large group of potential jurors.

Tanishia Covington, who was was held without bond for months before Hooks reduced her bond to an apparently still insurmountable $200,000 last year, will have a new hearing on cutting her bond amount later this month, Hooks said.

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