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Gossipy jury pool threatens to derail murder trial against Dontae Morris

TAMPA — During hours of waiting in hallways and auditoriums, prospective jurors in the first-degree murder trial of Dontae Morris often turned to each other for what one called "a little bit of scuttlebutt."

Some of them said, "This is the kid who killed two police officers," or "Do you remember police trying to capture him?" or "This is really a bad case."

At least 16 incidents of gossiping among potential jurors may have derailed this week's trial of Morris — the first of four long-awaited trials he faces on charges that he murdered five people in 2010, including two Tampa police officers.

A furious Hillsborough Circuit Judge William Fuente said he will decide today whether to shut down the 200-member pool and start over.

Early Monday, he gave each of the 200 a written order prohibiting talk of Morris. When he asked one juror why she ignored his order, she replied, "I guess I don't have good self-control."

In this trial, Morris, 26, is accused of fatally shooting Rodney "Scarface" Jones, 42, during an attempted robbery May 31, 2010, outside the Cotton Club in West Tampa. He is charged with premeditated first-degree murder, but prosecutors are not seeking the death penalty.

On Monday, about four dozen jurors were dismissed after they told attorneys they knew Morris was also charged with the fatal shootings of Tampa police Officers Jeffrey Kocab and David Curtis on June 29, 2010. None of the jurors mentioned two other murders Morris is charged with — those of Harold Wright and Derek Anderson in robbery attempts.

Fuente quickly sent those jurors home, but stories about Morris' other charges continued to spread through the jury pool. In some cases, the gossip jogged memories. "I heard some panelists talking and my memory clicked," one said.

A few said they heard stories about Morris on TV and radio Monday night. One heard talking at the grocery.

By the end of Tuesday, the pool had dwindled to 69. But about 20 others said they had scheduling conflicts, which have not yet been ruled on.

None have been questioned yet about other issues that could disqualify them — such as their ability to review gruesome photographs, or their ability to presume the defendant's innocence, or their belief in reasonable doubt.

Assistant State Attorney Scott Harmon said he thought there was a "very good chance" attorneys could still find 12 impartial jurors and at least two alternates. "What we have are isolated pockets of juror misconduct."

Fuente asked the pool to return this morning, when he'll rule.

"Next time," he vowed, "I'll sequester 200 jurors."

Gossipy jury pool threatens to derail murder trial against Dontae Morris 07/31/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 31, 2012 11:43pm]
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