Saturday, December 16, 2017
News Roundup

Hillsborough judge vows to send prospective juror to jail

TAMPA — A prospective juror may have picked the worst possible judge to defy by ignoring the judge's written warning not to research a death-penalty murder trial getting started this week and not to talk about the case with other jurors.

Would-be juror Vishnu P. Singh did all that. And when Hillsborough Circuit Judge William Fuente found out Wednesday, he clearly was out of patience and out of leniency. He angrily told Singh to leave a valid address with the bailiffs and prepare to go to jail when he is called back.

He then ordered Singh thrown out of the courthouse.

The judge is presiding over the first-degree murder trial of Kenneth Ray Jackson, 30, charged with raping and fatally stabbing a 50-year-old Seffner mother of three in 2007. The trial is expected to last a month because of the state's intention to seek the death penalty.

Fuente's previous attempt to try Jackson failed last year when lawyers couldn't find 12 acceptable jurors out of a pool of 60. Many were discharged because they said they could not impose the death penalty under any circumstances.

The same judge presided over another failed high-profile murder trial in August. That trial was to be the first of four trials for Dontae Morris, who is accused of committing five murders in 2010, including those of two Tampa police officers.

The August trial was stopped and 80 prospective jurors were dismissed after Fuente learned that some had gossiped about Morris' multiple charges during rest periods and lunch.

But although 16 admitted they had either gossiped or listened, Fuente charged none of them with contempt of court.

The judge took extra precautions when the current trial for Jackson started on Monday. He recruited a pool of 200 prospective jurors and gave each of them a written order not to research the case or talk to anyone about it. Before every break, he reminded them about the order and warned them not to talk about the case.

Then Wednesday, a juror reported Singh talked over lunch about Googling Jackson's name the night before. The juror said he refused to listen, then reported the conversation to bailiffs. This time, Fuente did not dismiss the entire panel, but said Singh could count on a jail sentence.

Reached later in the day, Singh said he hardly remembers the judge's written order. "I remember a piece of paper," he said. "I didn't read the whole thing."

He said he shouldn't have Googled Jackson's name, but didn't learn that much, and "I never shared it with anyone." He guessed that other jurors probably Googled, too.

As for a likely jail sentence, Singh said he can't afford a lawyer so he is mailing Fuente a letter saying, "What I did was wrong."

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

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Published: 12/16/17