ORLANDO — A jury was sworn in Thursday to decide whether Dontae Morris is guilty of killing two police officers, setting the stage for a trial next week in one of the Tampa Bay area's most closely watched murder cases.
The jury — an eclectic group that includes a physical therapist, an airline pilot and a retired trucker — was seated despite serious concerns expressed by defense attorneys, and even one prospective juror, about irregularities in the selection process. Those problems could linger over the rest of Morris' trial, since they would likely form the basis of an appeal if he is convicted.
Morris, 28, faces two counts of first-degree murder for the deaths of Tampa police officers David Curtis and Jeffrey Kocab. Authorities say Morris shot the officers in the head during a routine traffic stop in 2010. If the jury of eight men and four women finds him guilty, they will have to recommend whether he should be executed.
Over four slow-going days, prosecutors, defense attorneys and Hillsborough Circuit Judge William Fuente grilled a group of 150 prospective jurors, all of them from the Orlando area on topics ranging from their professions to their views of capital punishment. The judge was seeking out-of-town jurors who had not seen or heard news reports of the case.
The process went awry — irretrievably so, according to defense attorneys — on Wednesday afternoon. While being questioned about her willingness to impose the death penalty, an 80-year-old woman blurted out that she would have no problem delivering a death verdict for someone who was being convicted of murder for the second time.
"I have a little theory," said the juror, Gloria Kaasa of Orlando. "If you are in court and you have been charged and found guilty of first-degree murder, you are wasting our taxpayers' money to do another performance and another performance."
She added, "If you are sentenced for one thing and brought in for another crime, if you are wasting taxpayers' money, you are guilty, guilty, guilty."
Her comments were made in front of the 75 remaining jurors in the pool, including those who were ultimately selected for jury service. Questioned alone after other potential jurors were led out of the courtroom, Kaasa admitted she knew the details of Morris' case and had been referring to his conviction in March for an unrelated murder.
Fuente dismissed Kaasa from jury service, but said selection could continue because her remarks were too vague to have been understood by her fellow jury candidates. Defense lawyers argued on Wednesday, and again on Thursday, that the damage had been done.
"She was specifically referencing a repeat performance, coming back and coming back after a conviction," attorney Chris Boldt said. "Clearly those are references to an unrelated homicide conviction."
The judge has ruled that all information about Morris' earlier case is off-limits in the upcoming double-murder trial. In the intensely detail-oriented world of death penalty litigation, the risk that Kaasa's comments might have prejudiced the jury is almost certain to be a central issue in Morris' appeal if he is sentenced to death.
"This is not only going to be raised, it's going to be talked about extensively in an appellate brief," said Tampa criminal defense attorney Lyann Goudie, who is not involved with the case. "Because you have this whole specter hanging over it."
Goudie said she was surprised that Fuente, whom she praised as a careful and fair-minded judge, did not choose to start over with a fresh pool of jurors. Proceeding on the current course, she said, opens the possibility that after a time-consuming and emotionally fraught trial, Morris' case might have to be relitigated — another jury, another trial, another verdict — if he is convicted only to have his sentence reversed.
"Do you want to do this all over again?" Goudie said. "Better safe than sorry."
Another, less serious snag in jury selection occurred Thursday when a male juror asked to speak to the judge alone after lunch. He said he worried that a comment one of his fellow jurors had made in front of the entire group had prejudiced the jury.
The woman said in court that after watching TV coverage of the case, "In my heart right now, I believe he is guilty."
The man who addressed Fuente said he worried about "somebody coming back later and saying it was a tainted jury pool" because of the woman's remark. He added, "Over the lunch break, I kept hearing that in my mind. It wasn't influencing me, but it just seemed like something that shouldn't have been said in this setting and could be prejudicial."
After the juror assured Fuente that the comment had not influenced him personally, the judge again said jury selection could continue.
Arguments and testimony in the trial begin Tuesday. On Monday, the 12 jurors and four alternates will be taken to Tampa and placed under guard in a hotel, where they will remain until the trial is over. Fuente said this week he hopes that the trial will take five days or less.