CLEARWATER — Douglas Morrison and his co-workers at a Starbucks coffee shop got a few laughs when they heard Jennifer Mee, known as the “Hiccup Girl,” had been charged with killing a man in a botched robbery.
One of the baristas there had a severe hiccup problem, so the Starbucks staff began calling her the Hiccup Girl, Morrison told Pinellas Circuit Judge Nancy Moate Ley Tuesday after jury selection got under way for Mee’s first-degree murder trial.
They teased their co-worker, saying she was going to “take care of us,” the same way Mee is accused of taking care of — killing — Shannon Griffin, Morrison told the judge.
“We started joking about it,” Morrison said.
When Ley asked him if he could set that aside and serve as a fair and impartial juror, Morrison said he could not.
“I think I’d be influenced by what we were joking about at work,” Morrison said.
Despite such issues with prospective jurors, prosecutors and defense attorneys were able to agree on 12 jurors and four alternates by the end of the day. Opening statements are scheduled for today.
According to investigators, Mee and two accomplices, Laron Raiford and Lamont Newton, lured Griffin to a dark alley in St. Petersburg, promising to sell him $60 worth of marijuana in October 2010. The robbery went awry, though, and Griffin was killed, police said.
Raiford, was convicted in Griffin’s death last month and sentenced to life in prison. Newton has yet to stand trial. If convicted as charged, Mee faces life in prison.
Mee had befriended Griffin online, invited him to meet her and set him up for the robbery, authorities said.
Three years earlier, she became known nationwide as the Hiccup Girl, for her seeming inability to stop hiccuping.
There was concern that there might have been so much pretrial publicity in Mee’s case that choosing a jury was going to be something of a challenge.
Last week, prosecutors filed an emergency motion after learning Mee’s lead attorney, John Trevena, had arranged a handful of interviews with local and nation-wide outlets on the eve of this week’s trial — including “Inside Edition,” the “Today” show, and the “Dr. Phil” show.
Trevena had done so, he said, to create a favorable impression of Mee with prospective jurors.
Prosecutors feared the public would be so inundated with news stories about Mee so close to her trial that it would be difficult impaneling 12 unbiased jurors. Ley ruled prosecutors hadn’t shown that was going to be the case, so she gave the interviews the go-ahead. They were cancelled this weekend after Trevena learned a detective was going to sit in on them.
Still, Ley took precautions. She reserved the largest courtroom at the criminal justice center for Tuesday’s jury selection. And, in addition to the 70 prospective jurors she had at her disposal, she had 20 more on standby if 12 couldn’t be gleaned from the 70.
Of the 70, 30 raised their hands when they said they had heard of the Hiccup Girl. Of those, though, the vast majority had only a casual knowledge of Mee and the allegations against her.
“I’ve heard the term, ‘Hiccup Girl,’ ” said prospective juror Alan Santo. “It’s a couple of years now. That’s all I know.”
Another was disgusted at the way in which the media had made a sensation of Mee, with her hiccuping problem, before the homicide.
“That hiccup stuff kind of turned me off,” said prospective juror Daniel Toto. “They had given the whole thing a name. I’m not always impressed with the way the press does things.”
Still, of the 30 who had heard of the Hiccup Girl, nine were dismissed, including Morrison, the Starbucks barista.
Another was Kevin McVan, who was sympathetic with Mee’s plight.
“I have a lot of sympathy for Miss Lee,” he said. “I’ve had hiccups but obviously not to that extent.”
Yet another sympathetic juror was Barbara Hoyle.
“I dont know if I could be impartial,” Hoyle said. “I have children. She’s just a kid,” Hoyle said, wiping her eye with a tissue. Mee wept, too.
Others were dismissed for a variety of reasons, the type that come up with any murder trial. One woman said she could not be impartial in the case because Judge Ley had presided over her current husband’s divorce. Another woman was dismissed after she said she was 35 weeks pregnant, another because she is taking care of her mother, who is suffering from dementia and recently fractured her hip.
The trial could end as early as Friday.