Jury selection to begin Thursday in Bass Webb's murder trial

CYNTHIANA — Public defenders plan to argue that a murder defendant's problems with diabetes and alcohol affected his mental state and should be considered as mitigating factors as his murder trial starts Thursday.

Answering questions about Bass Webb's mental state could play a bigger role in the trial than the question of whether he killed his girlfriend, Bryia Runiewicz, 31, who was found dead in her home on July 31, 2009.

Runiewicz, a one-time employee at the Bourbon County Detention Center, was studying to become a law enforcement officer. She died three days before she was to begin a job with the Department of Homeland Security. She is survived by two daughters from a previous relationship; the girls' father died the month before Runiewicz died.

"Bass has never denied that he was the one who did this," public defender Tom Griffiths said Wednesday. "The question has always been what happened and why."

Attorneys will be gearing up for a long trial. It is expected to take the entire month of December, though court will break for the holidays. Jury selection is scheduled to begin Thursday morning from a pool of about 200 people.

If convicted, Webb could face the death penalty.

Prosecutors intend to vigorously challenge the defense's theory about Webb's mental state, and say they know of no other criminal cases in Kentucky where it has been recognized.

The prosecution could call as many as 70 witnesses. The defense has not said how many witnesses it will call. It's not clear whether Webb will take the stand.

The case has already had some legal twists and turns this week and there are still some unanswered questions about how the case will proceed.

Earlier this week, Webb's attorneys filed a motion challenging the constitutionality of capital punishment. That matter is pending.

But defense attorneys got one victory on Wednesday: Harrison Circuit Judge Jay Delaney dismissed a rape charge Webb was facing. While acknowledging there was evidence that Webb had sex with Runiewicz sometime before her death, the defense had argued there was no evidence of rape.

Webb's attorneys — Griffiths and Craig Newbern Jr. — have indicated they intend to call witnesses who will testify that Webb's diabetes affected his mental state.

One witness, Brad Bushman, a psychology professor at Ohio State University, has performed studies demonstrating that people who have trouble metabolizing glucose, a simple sugar found in the body that provides energy for the brain, show more evidence of aggression.

Griffiths noted during a hearing on Tuesday that Webb "was drinking a great deal" before Runiewicz's death, and that had a "compound effect" on his actions.

"This is not junk science," Griffiths said Tuesday.

In a written response, Commonwealth's Attorney Doug Miller and Michael Laws called that theory "at best a novel notion raising questions as to its validity and whether it is reliable, credible, scientific evidence."

On Friday, jury selection will be interrupted for a hearing in which Judge Delaney will evaluate the admissibility of testimony in regard to links between diabetes and aggression that could be heard by Bushman and Dr. L. Raymond Reynolds, a professor of internal medicine at the University of Kentucky. The Friday hearing will be closed to the media and public.

During a pretrial hearing in April, a psychiatrist from the Kentucky Correctional Psychiatric Center in LaGrange testified that blood-sugar levels could affect someone mentally, but she did not think it was the case with Webb, although "he was not completely compliant" with treatment for his diabetes.

The psychiatrist, Dr. Amy Trivette, also testified that Webb showed signs of personality disorder, which could make it hard for him to interact with others, but she said he did not have a severe psychotic disorder, mood disorder or psychosis.

The trial will be somewhat unusual in that it will have three phases.

In typical criminal cases, a jury hears evidence and decides whether the defendant is guilty, then goes into a second phase to determine the punishment it will recommend to a judge.

In Webb's trial, the jury will first hear evidence about the victim's death. If the jury finds him guilty of murder, the trial will go to a second or "aggravator" phase, in which the jury will hear evidence about prior serious assaults, which constitutes an aggravating circumstance under which the death penalty should be considered.

Once the second phase is completed, the trial will go to the penalty phase. Depending on what happens in the "aggravator" phase, Webb could face the death penalty or something less severe. Other possible penalties include life in prison without the possibility of parole, life without parole for 25 years, life, or 20 to 50 years in prison.

Webb has a criminal history that stretches back to 2000, when he was sentenced in Menifee County to one year in prison for attempting to elude a police officer and five counts of wanton endangerment.

Earlier this year, Webb was found guilty in May of two counts of attempted murder for trying to run down a pretrial officer and a deputy sheriff outside the Bourbon County jail in 2009. He was sentenced to 50 years in prison.

In March Webb was found guilty and sentenced to 15 years in prison for assaulting an officer at the Fayette County Detention Center. In that case, Webb threw a metal telephone at a corrections officer. The phone, which had been ripped from a wall, cracked a riot shield held by the officer. The officer was not injured.

Webb also is accused of murder in the death of Sabrina Marie Vaughn, who was in her 20s, in Montgomery County. Vaughn's skeletal remains were found in January 2010 on a rural road in Powell County after she had been missing seven years. A Montgomery County grand jury indicted Webb in April 2010. That trial is scheduled for April 2012.

Webb gained notoriety after spitting in the face of Bourbon District Judge Vanessa Dickson during a hearing in August 2009; he was later indicted on a felony charge of intimidating a judicial officer. That case is still pending in Bourbon County.

Webb also has been accused of spitting in the face of a Fayette County jail officer in February. He was indicted on charges of third-degree assault and being a persistent felony offender. According to a jail incident report, Webb told corrections officers that "there would be an assault every day until he killed one of us or we killed him." That case is still pending in Fayette County.

In March 2004, Webb pleaded guilty in Fayette County to charges of third-degree assault. In that case, Webb grabbed a Lexington police officer's genitals and tried to head-butt the officer.

Relatives seeking mercy for Webb wrote Fayette Circuit Judge Pamela Goodwine and noted that Webb had problems with drugs and alcohol.

"The only time he gets in trouble is when he is on drugs. He wants to stop taking drugs," his sister Sabrina Webb wrote.

The judge sentenced Webb to five years in prison. Webb himself later sought shock probation from Goodwine, and in a August 2004 letter to the judge Webb wrote, "I take full responsibility for my actions, but I feel I am ready to change my life around if given the chance."

Goodwine denied the motion for shock probation.

Webb was released from state custody in January 2009, according to the state Department of Corrections. Six months later, he was charged with murder in Runiewicz's death.

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader