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Gossip scuttles Dontae Morris trial; Hillsborough judge dismisses jury pool

TAMPA — As a judge dismissed an entire pool of jurors Wednesday for gossiping about Dontae Morris' arrests in five murder cases, the sister of victim Rodney Jones, who has waited two years for justice, said, "I feel like I've reached the last chapter and discovered a thousand more pages."

A sense of crushing disappointment pervaded the courtroom of Hillsborough Circuit Judge William Fuente as he sent home about 70 potential jurors after learning that many had ignored his order not to talk about Morris while waiting through a weeklong selection process.

Fuente didn't single out any jurors for gossiping, but said, "If you did, you know who you are. You should be ashamed."

The trial, two years in the making, probably won't be rescheduled until next year. The judge said he may move it out of Hillsborough County. A defense attorney wants it moved completely out of the Tampa Bay media market.

Three more murder trials for Morris — including one for the 2010 fatal shootings of Tampa police Officers Jeffrey Kocab and David Curtis — remain in limbo, unscheduled. Fuente asked lawyers to regroup with him on Aug. 20.

The judge said he spent a long night wrestling over his decision after 16 jurors reported Tuesday that they had either participated in or overheard gossip about Morris, even though the judge gave each of them a written order not to talk about the defendant. One offending juror confessed, "I guess I don't have good self-control."

She and others are vulnerable to charges of juror misconduct, but Fuente gave no indication that he planned any action against them.

Some of the jurors who didn't gossip were as outraged as the judge.

"Whoever did this at a minimum ought to be ashamed," said juror Wendy Solhan. She moved to Hillsborough County last December and hadn't heard of Morris. She thought she would make an ideal juror. During one four-hour break, she avoided conversation by going shopping.

"The jury system is the foundation of our judicial process, and it should be taken seriously by anyone who is called to jury duty," Solhan said.

"Not to take that seriously is really an affront. Anyone in the jury pool could be on the other side someday."

Juror Shanelle Williamson said she was sorry that she and other jurors who followed the rules were lumped in with those who didn't. When she heard inappropriate chatter, she said she bowed her head and tuned it out.

When juror Sarah Pease learned after dismissal that Morris is alleged to have murdered five people, her eyes widened. She said she still would have been willing to serve.

"I'm not concerned about the time wasted," she said. "I'm disappointed in the jury system. We were given an order and some chose not to obey it."

Morris had no reaction when the judge dismissed the jury. He was led out of the courtroom in shackles.

In this first trial, he was to answer charges that he committed premeditated first-degree murder on May 31, 2010. On that night, investigators say, he shot Rodney Jones, 42, during an attempted robbery outside the Cotton Club in West Tampa.

Most of the potential jurors who had heard of Morris connected him to the murders of the two Tampa officers the same year.

On Wednesday, Assistant State Attorney Scott Harmon and defense lawyer Byron Hileman both said the judge had taken every reasonable precaution. Hileman said he hadn't seen such a blatant violation of jury ethics in 20 years.

But a jury pool for a death-penalty murder trial in Dade City was dismissed in March after a judge learned that a juror had gossiped about the defendant's previous murder conviction.

Hileman said he didn't know of any solution other than to move the trial to "any place outside of the Tampa Bay media market."

Both the judge and prosecutor said they believed they still could have fielded 12 impartial jurors this week, but Fuente said he worried that an appeal of a conviction would hamper prosecution of Morris' other murder cases.

Because of other trials already scheduled, prosecutor Harmon doubted the trial could take place this year.

Daphne Stephens, sister of Rodney Jones, said all she can do is start on those thousand more pages.

"It's hurtful and disappointing," she said.

Times staff writer Lisa Buie contributed to this report. John Barry can be reached at (813) 226-3383 or jbarry@tampabay.com.

Gossip scuttles Dontae Morris trial; Hillsborough judge dismisses jury pool 08/01/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 1, 2012 11:10pm]
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