Larissa Schuster meets possible jurors

VAN NUYS -- Standing in front of a crowd of about 150 potential jurors seated in a courthouse auditorium, Larissa Schuster -- dressed smartly in a pink blouse, a black pinstripe suit jacket and dress pants -- nodded and smiled when introduced by her attorney.

Somewhere in the crowd were 12 yet-to-be-chosen jurors who will determine her fate -- life in prison, or freedom -- and Schuster didn't waste a good first impression.

"Thank you," she mouthed to the crowd.

Schuster, a 47-year-old former Clovis businesswoman, has been in custody in the Fresno County Jail for more than four years awaiting trial. She is accused of murdering her husband, Timothy Schuster, in 2003 and leaving his body in a barrel of acid.

On Monday, the first day of her trial, potential jurors filled out four-page questionnaires and were told the basic facts of the case.

Though Schuster's case has caught much media attention in the Valley -- prompting Judge Wayne Ellison of Fresno County Superior Court to move the case to Van Nuys, a suburb of Los Angeles -- Los Angeles-area news media have not covered the case, meaning it is unlikely many of the potential jurors have heard of Schuster or her alleged crime.

Nevertheless, the questionnaire asked whether potential jurors had heard about the case or knew anyone associated with it.

The questionnaire also asked jurors whether the sight of photographs of Timothy Schuster's remains would make it impossible for them to judge Larissa Schuster fairly. It said that jurors will "likely" see such photos during the course of the trial.

Before Schuster was introduced to the potential jurors Monday afternoon, her attorney, Roger Nuttall, told Ellison he was concerned his client did not have access to a comb, toothpaste, deodorant and her anti-depressant Zoloft medications -- and that this could provide a negative image to jurors.

"I'm concerned about her image," Nuttall said. "She needs to be able to present herself in a clean, attractive way. I want to make sure she feels good about herself and her image."

Nuttall also said that because Schuster is being held 30 miles away at the Century Regional Detention Center in Lynwood, south of Los Angeles, she must wake up at 3 a.m. every day so she can be bused to the courthouse. She does not return to the jail until 9:30 p.m., giving her only a few hours to sleep and risking the chance that she may nod off in front of jurors, Nuttall said.

Later, outside the courthouse, Nuttall said Schuster is exhausted and worried. He said she "got a little teary" when he visited her Sunday night.

Ellison didn't directly address Nuttall's concerns, but said he did not think Schuster was being treated any differently than any other Los Angeles County Jail inmate.

In the summer of 2003, Larissa Schuster was going through a bitter divorce with Timothy Schuster. In the middle of the night on July 10, James Fagone testified in his December trial, she and Fagone, a former employee at her Fresno agriculture research lab, entered Timothy Schuster's house, knocked him out with a chloroform-soaked rag and a stun gun, and drove him to Larissa Schuster's house.

There, Fagone said, Larissa Schuster put her husband in a 55-gallon barrel and poured hydrochloric acid over him. It's unclear whether he was alive at the time.

Fagone eventually was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole.