ORLANDO — Dontae Morris might be one of the most infamous figures in Tampa, but just 85 miles up the highway in Orlando, few people know who he is.
Last year, efforts to find a fair jury in Tampa to preside over a murder trial for Morris derailed, largely because the majority – about 7 in 10 – of potential jurors knew Morris also is accused of murdering two Tampa police officers.
So on Monday, Circuit Judge William Fuente and lawyers began screening potential jurors in Orlando. The plan is to find a jury there, then bring jurors to Tampa for Morris’ trial in the killing of Rodney Jones, who was shot outside a Tampa nightclub May 31, 2010.
Out of about 150 jury candidates, only three of the Orange County residents were familiar with Morris and that he is accused of the June 29, 2010, killing of police officers Jeffrey Curtis and David Kocab, as well as three other people in separate slayings.
Fuente focused his questioning Monday on just two issues – whether potential jurors were exposed to publicity about Morris and whether they could put their lives on hold to serve on a jury that will be sequestered in a Tampa hotel for about four days next week.
Morris, who was present in court, did not speak during jury selection. But his lawyers told the judge before the proceedings began that he was unhappy with the blue shirt they had given him and wanted a different one. The judge told the lawyers Morris could change his shirt on a break if he wanted, but Fuente was not going to delay jury selection.
In the end, the defendant wore the blue dress shirt the whole day.
So far, the Orlando jury selection has proceeded much more smoothly than last year’s attempt at finding a jury in Tampa.
By contrast, at the end of the day Monday, there were more potential jurors than seats in the courtroom. With 70 people making it through the first round of screening, and just 64 seats, Fuente asked lawyers whether they could agree to dismiss any others.
The lawyers conferred and agreed to excuse six more.
On Tuesday, Fuente plans to question the remaining jury candidates in more detail, hoping to get a jury selected by the end of the day or Wednesday at the latest. The actual trial over the Jones killing is scheduled to begin Monday.
It was the police officer slayings during a traffic stop that galvanized Tampa and Hillsborough County residents, giving Morris such a high profile that finding a Tampa jury in the Jones trial became problematic.
In addition to Jones and the police officers, Morris is charged in the shooting deaths of two other men, Derek Anderson and Harold Wright, in the weeks leading up to the police killings.
The Tampa jury selection attempt featured not only jurors who knew about the case but repeated instances of jury candidates violating the judge’s order that they not discuss the case amongst themselves.
The exasperated Fuente dismissed the pool and later elected to seek jurors from another media market.
Just as he did in Tampa, Fuente is giving potential Orange County jurors a written order restricting their out-of-court conversations and media consumption as well.
The five killings are expected to be the subject of four trials, but Morris faces a potential death sentence only for the police killings. Fuente has not addressed how the other three trials will be handled.