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Jury selection going slow in Julie Schenecker murder trial

TAMPA — Photos of Julie Schenecker have been splashed across newspapers' front pages, highlighted on the evening news, and coated in gloss in national magazines.

On Monday, the first day of jury selection in Schenecker's double murder trial, her near-ubiquity was more than a mild annoyance for the attorneys working on her case. By the day's end, more than 20 people out of a pool of 50 prospective jurors were excused from duty. Most of them readily admitted their views had been shaped by news reports.

"Just from what I've seen in the news … I would have been under the impression she was guilty," said the first juror to come before attorneys for questioning. "I already have that mentality."

Going juror by juror, attorneys questioned 35 people, trying to weed out bias. Another 50 will be added to the pool today. If that still is not sufficient, more will be summoned, Circuit Judge Emmett L. Battles said.

Once prosecutors and defense attorneys agree on a group of people selected from the initial pool, a second round of more detailed questioning will begin. The process could fill the entire first week of what's expected to be a three-week trial.

Schenecker's case has been the subject of heightened media scrutiny since her arrest in 2011, when she was charged with killing her 16-year-old daughter, Calyx, and her son Beau, 13, at their New Tampa home. Video footage and photographs of her emerging from the Tampa Police Department headquarters, shaking and supported by deputies, have defined her to many in the Tampa Bay area.

As Schenecker's parents and ex-husband looked on from the gallery, most jurors told attorneys they already believed her to be guilty, and would have a difficult, if not impossible, time keeping an open mind. Several said they thought she was likely mentally ill.

"It would take a lot to convince me that she was not guilty," said a Hillsborough County middle school teacher and mother of four, who attorneys ultimately decided to send back to her classroom.

"I wouldn't even feel bad if they went for the death penalty," said an older man who works for a private security company. He, too, was excused.

He said this just feet away from Schenecker, 53, who seemed to barely register either her family or the prospective jurors' presence. Dressed in a gray suit and a black sweater, she looked somber, far from the wild-eyed woman who was led out of Tampa police headquarters in handcuffs three years ago.

As several prospective jurors noted during questioning, Schenecker's trial does not center around the question of whether she killed her children on Jan. 27, 2011.

By invoking the insanity defense, her attorneys have essentially acknowledged that she committed the crime, though without any understanding of her actions.

Prosecutors, who are seeking a life sentence, will likely argue though she may have been mentally ill, Schenecker plotted her children's murders.

"The question is, was she capable of knowing better?" said juror number 31. "In that regard, she is innocent until proven guilty."

She was dismissed.

Anna M. Phillips can be reached at aphillips@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3354.

Jury selection going slow in Julie Schenecker murder trial 04/28/14 [Last modified: Monday, May 5, 2014 11:34am]
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