ORLANDO – Even in Orlando, people have heard about the killing of two Tampa police officers and the charges against Dontae Morris.
Out of a pool of 50 potential jurors called for possible service on Morris' murder trial, 19 raised their hands Monday morning when asked if they knew anything about the case.
A 12-member jury, plus four alternates, is being selected in Orlando because Circuit Judge William Fuente ruled it would not be possible to find a fair jury in Tampa to judge the notorious Morris, who already has been convicted of murder in another slaying.
Once picked, the jury will be brought to Tampa and sequestered for the duration of the trial.
Jury selection is expected to take up the better part of this week, with the trial scheduled to begin on Nov. 12. If Morris is convicted in this case, he faces a second hearing over whether he should be sentenced to death.
The jury for Morris' last murder trial – for the slaying of Rodney Jones – was likewise selected in Orlando after an attempt to seat a Hillsborough County jury derailed because jury candidates couldn't stop themselves from talking to each other about what they knew about the case.
But when Orange County residents were asked in March if they knew anything about the Jones slaying, only a handful thought they did, and most were confusing it with other cases.
By contrast, most of the people who said they knew about the killings of Tampa police officers Jeffrey Kocab and David Curtis actually did remember news reports of the June 29, 2010, traffic stop that ended in the shootings.
“Before the judge read what the charges were, I had already known what they were from the media,” said one prospective juror, who described himself as a “news junkie.” He later was excused from serving on the panel.
However, unlike most of the Tampa jury prospects, Orange County jury candidates mostly remembered only vague details of the case.
Altogether, nine jury candidates were excused because they said they couldn't be fair based on what they knew about the case. Several said they worked in or were close to others who work in law enforcement.
One who was excused said he heard about the case from his father, a police officer, who was angry and “ranting” about what happened. “I've seen a lot of bad things happen to my dad,” the man said. Morris “deserves a fair trial. I just don't think I'm the best option.”
Another 14 jury candidates were excused because they said being sequestered in a Hillsborough County hotel for the duration of the trial would pose a hardship. Before listening to excuses, the judge cautioned he wanted to hear only the most serious claims.
“Reasons for being excused would have to border on the calamitous or severe,” Fuente told prospective jurors.
Among the excuses accepted by Fuente was one from a woman who said she almost lost her restaurant job for just having to report Monday, even though the judge told the woman, “Do you know it's a crime (for an employer) to tell you that?”
The judge also released people with serious medical conditions and those having to care for others with medical issues. But he did not excuse a woman who said she was worried about her 49-year-old son who recently was diagnosed with asthma.
Likewise, Fuente excused people who had previously scheduled trips or surgeries, but he did not excuse a woman who said she had to pack for a trip on Nov. 23. “Give me a break,” the judge said, assuring her she will have time to pack.
In a similar vein, a man who said he simply didn't want to spend that much time away from home was left in the pool of available jurors.
Another man, who initially said he couldn't serve, later thought better of it. “After careful consideration, my reluctance to be sequestered ... doesn't constitute a valid reason,” he said. He remained on the panel of potential jurors.