How the Casey Anthony murder case came to Pinellas County

Casey Anthony, here in the courtroom at the Pinellas County Criminal Justice Center on Friday, faces the death penalty.

Associated Press

Casey Anthony, here in the courtroom at the Pinellas County Criminal Justice Center on Friday, faces the death penalty.

Late on a Friday afternoon in January, Ron Stuart was working in the Pinellas criminal courts complex when he noticed something curious.

Two officials from the Orlando court system had shown up out of the blue. Stuart, public information officer for the local courts, knew the men. But they never said they were coming.

It turns out there was a reason for that. Stuart had stumbled upon a secret.

The secret came about because Orange-Osceola Chief Judge Belvin Perry wanted to find jurors outside the Orlando area for an upcoming murder trial that was drawing such publicity it was being compared with the O.J. Simpson case.

So Perry privately asked Pinellas-Pasco Chief Judge Thomas McGrady for help. Perry needed Pinellas jurors to make his plan work. He needed a big courtroom. He needed security.

Most of all, he needed secrecy.

• • •

Something about Casey Anthony captivates a lot of people.

Her cute 2-year-old child, Caylee Marie Anthony, disappeared in Orlando in 2008. It took months of searching before the girl's remains were found. That's part of it.

Casey Anthony, 25, is an attractive young woman who can be seen in multiple online photographs. That's part of it.

There was plenty of tabloid drama in her family life, enough for thousands to conclude she is either a victim of circumstance or a killer. That's part of it.

Casey Anthony is charged with murder and facing the death penalty, and that's part of it, too.

And yet, it's still mind-boggling to consider the intense interest in the case and the equally intense media coverage.

Consider that one Orlando television station has developed a Casey Anthony iPhone app, so people never have to be deprived of their Casey Anthony news. And for people who don't have iPhones, other media will text and e-mail updates.

Any scrap of evidence in the case — or any generic court filing — gets scanned and posted online. More than 600 journalists have requested credentials to cover the trial in Orlando. And it's not just Central Florida media. National television programs such as Nancy Grace have feasted on the story.

• • •

But it's a bedrock principle of the legal system that criminal defendants are entitled not only to trial by jury, but one that is unbiased.

That is what prompted Perry's covert mission to Pinellas County. Perry not only is the chief judge for the Orange-Osceola Circuit, but he also is presiding in the murder trial.

"Judge Perry felt that the pretrial publicity in this case was so enormous," said Karen Levey, chief of due process services for the Orange-Osceola courts. All that coverage might have given people opinions about whether Anthony was guilty or innocent, before a single piece of evidence was presented to a jury.

Perry wanted to find jurors from another county with similar demographics, where local officials would accommodate the imposition. She said he has been extremely pleased with cooperation from the Pinellas courts and sheriff.

McGrady, the Pinellas-Pasco chief judge, says he advocates openness in the court system. But he "absolutely" agreed that Perry had a valid concern about pretrial publicity.

The judges were concerned that if they let it be known that Pinellas County would become the site for jury selection, the Orlando media frenzy would become a Tampa Bay media frenzy. And then potential jurors in Pinellas County might have become saturated in Casey Anthony news, too.

Knowing that Perry wanted to go outside the Orlando area for jurors, the Orlando media contacted officials in Pinellas, as well as other counties. So did the Tampa Bay media.

Pinellas officials generally deflected the questions without revealing Pinellas County's role. The secret stayed secret until a May 7 St. Petersburg Times article suggested Pinellas was the location, and other reports followed.

Judge Perry, defense attorneys and prosecutors spent the past week interviewing Pinellas County residents in hopes of finding enough jurors to pack up to Orlando for six to eight weeks to hear the case.

After an all-day session Saturday, attorneys agreed on 12 jurors. The case needs 12 jurors and eight alternates to start, but Perry said he'll start swearing in jurors when they reach 15.

He ordered everyone back starting at 8:30 a.m. today.

Curtis Krueger can be reached at ckrueger@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8232.

How the Casey Anthony murder case came to Pinellas County 05/15/11 [Last modified: Sunday, May 15, 2011 10:30pm]

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