Potential jurors questioned for Jacob LaRosa trial

Jacob LaRosa of Niles takes notes Monday during jury selection in his murder and attempted rape trial before Trumbull County Common Pleas Court Judge W. Wyatt McKay. LaRosa, 18, is accused of beating to death Marie Belcastro of Niles in her home March 31, 2015. Attorneys are expected to finish quizzing potential jurors today. Tribune Chronicle / R. Michael Semple

WARREN — Jury selection for the teen accused of the 2015 beating death and attempted rape of a 94-year-old woman was slowed Monday as attorneys quizzed them individually on whether news reports had hampered their ability to render fair verdicts.

Jacob LaRosa, now 18, is accused of aggravated murder, aggravated robbery, aggravated burglary and attempted rape in connection to the March 31, 2015, home invasion of Marie Belcastro’s residence in Niles.

When polled by Trumbull County Common Pleas Judge W. Wyatt McKay early Monday morning, 26 of the about 40 prospective jurors said they had read or heard news reports about the case. McKay decided it was wise to have those who admitted prior knowledge of the case questioned individually on their ability to remain partial.

McKay, county Assistant Prosecutors Christopher Becker and Gabriel Wildman, as well as defense attorneys Matthew Pentz and David T. Rousso, questioned potential jurors on their knowledge of the case and whether they had formed an opinion on whether LaRosa is guilty of the crimes alleged against him.

Rousso told potential jurors it did not matter that they had heard about different aspects of this case, but it does matter whether they can set aside what they’ve heard and concentrate only on the evidence presented in the courtroom.

Several jurors acknowledged they followed both television and newspaper reports about the case because of the nature of the crime or because they live in Niles. Several of those interviewed said they assumed LaRosa was guilty because of the timing of the arrest. One potential juror said he knew the family of the victim and had discussed the case among friends.

One woman described hearing about the case in 2015 and, at the time, said the assailant should pay the ultimate price.

“I’m sure I said they should fry him,” she said. “It was a shame this would happen to a 94-year-old woman. I take care of a 94-year-old lady.”

Despite those statements, she said she could keep an open mind.

Another potential juror said she was raped when she was younger. Although that occurred many years ago, the woman said she could not guarantee it would not affect her decision-making in this case.

Another potential witness was dismissed because she previously had been convicted of a felony.

Attorneys are expected to finish questioning potential jurors this morning before selecting the 12 plus alternates who will hear the case. Jurors then will be taken to key locations at which the crime took place. Opening arguments may occur this afternoon if a jury can be seated.

LaRosa was 15 when he was charged with the crimes. He faces a maximum sentence of life in prison if found guilty. Efforts by defense attorneys to keep the case in juvenile court failed.

LaRosa is accused of beating Belcastro to death with a blow to the head with a blunt object, according to a Niles police report. Belcastro was found just after 5:30 p.m. that day. At 5:35 p.m., police were called to LaRosa’s home after he stumbled inside covered with blood, according to a search warrant filed in Trumbull County Common Pleas Court.