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Dontae case proving irresistible conversation for jury pool

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Published:   |   Updated: March 18, 2013 at 10:23 PM
TAMPA -

Trying to keep 200 people from talking about one of the most notorious accused killers in Tampa has proved impossible for Judge William Fuente.

After two full days of interviewing potential jurors looking for an impartial panel to judge Dontae Morris, Fuente may be poised to dismiss the whole pool of jury candidates.

On Monday, the judge took the unusual step of giving each jury candidate a written copy of his order directing them not to talk about the case or view media reports.

Yet, on Tuesday, person after person – 16 in all – reported hearing or participating in conversations in a jury holding room about Morris' alleged involvement in the slayings of two Tampa police officers.

Many others told the judge they had either seen media reports Monday night or heard about the case from family or friends.

"Let me just say for the record, if we ever do this again, I'm going to station four deputies in the jury room to monitor," the exasperated judge told attorneys.

Morris is awaiting trial on charges he murdered officers Jeffrey Kocab and David Curtis on June 29, 2010. He is also charged with killing three other men – Derek Anderson, Harold Wright and Rodney Jones – in the weeks leading up to the officers' shootings.

Fuente is trying to seat a jury to consider Morris' charges in the May 31, 2010, shooting death of Jones outside the Cotton Club. The judge has tried to cull out anyone who knew about the other murder charges, particularly the police killings.

Defense attorneys urged Fuente to dismiss the whole pool and start over.

"At this point, this panel is tainted," said defense lawyer Christopher Boldt. "They have discussed the case among themselves. It's irretrievably damaged."

But Assistant State Attorney Scott Harmon said that while the situation was difficult, it didn't warrant such a drastic step.

"What we have is isolated pockets of juror misconduct occurring," Harmon said. "I counted 16 people who indicated they heard other jurors or they themselves discussed" the case. "That is not a tainted panel."

Fuente said he would consider the arguments, keeping in mind that about 20 jury candidates also said they couldn't serve because of personal or financial hardships. The judge said he would decide what to do about them and the defense's motion this morning.

Fuente has already twice denied defense motions to move the trial to another county because of pretrial publicity. But the judge said he would revisit the issue if he couldn't find an impartial jury in Hillsborough County.

The difficulties of doing just that became apparent as jury candidates talked to the judge about what was going on in the holding room.

One woman told Fuente she heard other jury candidates talking Tuesday morning "about him shooting two cops or something." The woman said the discussion involved about four people behind her, but she couldn't identify them.

The pool of 200 potential jurors dwindled by the end of Tuesday to less than 70, with the judge still considering hardship requests from about 20.

Another woman told Fuente she found a newspaper with Morris' picture and a story in a restroom used by all the candidates. She said she gave the paper to a deputy and did not read it.

And yet another woman told the judge she and other candidates talked about the case Monday after receiving the judge's written order telling them not to do so.

"To walk in and see Dontae Morris standing there, I was just shocked," said the woman, who thought she was coming to court to hear a drunken driving case.

Fuente appeared angry, asking her why she disobeyed his order.

"You know you could go to jail for that," the judge said.

"I'm aware of that," she said.

About 150 jury candidates – 75 percent of those called - said they were familiar with Morris before reporting to court on Monday.

"I know he left body bags all over the city," one prospective juror said. "It was all in the news."

When told that some people weren't aware of the other case, the man said, "I'm amazed to hear that people didn't know. It's, like, 'Where have you been?' "

esilvestrini@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7837

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