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Jury selection to start Monday in Sumter python death trial

Law enforcement officials remove Gypsy, the 8-foot-6 albino Burmese python.

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times (2009)

Law enforcement officials remove Gypsy, the 8-foot-6 albino Burmese python.

Gypsy, a pet python that strangled a 2-year-old girl in her crib, won't appear in court in Sumter County this week when her owner and boyfriend stand trial for manslaughter and child neglect.

Assistant State Attorney Pete Magrino decided that photographs will have to suffice.

"I don't want a circus," said Magrino, a veteran homicide prosecutor whose resume includes securing a death sentence for sex offender and child killer John Evander Couey. "The snake's not on trial here."

Jury selection is set for today in the case of Charles "Jason" Darnell, 34, and Jaren Ashley Hare, 21. They are accused of failing to keep the 8-foot-6 albino Burmese python from slithering out of a terrarium in July 2009 and into bed with the toddler, Shaianna Hare.

The couple, who will be tried together, could get 35 years in prison each if convicted.

Darnell and Hare, Shaianna's mother, had been dating for two years before the snake attack and Darnell had planned to adopt the little girl. The couple had a child together about a month after Shaianna's death.

Humane officials and animal-law experts across the United States say they will be watching the unusual case, thought to be the first instance of a nonvenomous constrictor killing a child in Florida, where the thriving, but invasive "reptile of concern" spurred state-sponsored python hunts in the Everglades in 2009.

According to investigative documents, the yellowish constrictor, bought at a flea market for $200, hadn't eaten in a month and was kept in a glass terrarium with a quilt for a lid.

The snake weighed in at a sickly 13.5 pounds after the attack.

It sneaked out of the tank earlier that night and was slinking down the hall of the double-wide trailer when Darnell, headed to the bathroom, nearly stepped on it. He told deputies that he scooped up the python, slipped it into a mesh laundry bag, carried it back to the terrarium and put the quilt on the tank again.

But the bag had a baseball-sized hole in it, according to the investigation by deputies.

Darnell awoke the next morning to find the snake wrapped around Shaianna, its fangs in her forehead.

Orlando defense lawyer J. Rhiannon Arnold, Darnell's attorney, would not discuss the case. Ismael Solis Jr., Hare's attorney, did not return phone messages.

The felony charges accuse the couple, who lived about 60 miles northwest of Orlando, of acting with a "grossly careless disregard" for the safety and welfare of the child.

Before the attack, the python had escaped its tank 10 times since its last meal, a road-kill squirrel.

According to a death investigation conducted by the Department of Children and Families, Jaren Hare's mother, Sheryl, was concerned about her daughter's ability to care for Gypsy and another pet snake, Dixie, a smaller Colombian red-tail boa, because neither Jaren nor her boyfriend had jobs or money.

She offered to keep the reptiles at her home, provide a sealed container for the python and buy rats for the snakes to eat — but the offers were rejected. Sheryl Hare is listed as a prosecution witness in the case.

The constrictor, which has recovered from a cleaver wound inflicted by Darnell after he pulled Shaianna free, remains in the custody of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Officials would not disclose Gypsy's location.

Since 1980, the Humane Society of the United States, which opposes ownership of constrictor snakes, has documented more than 200 incidents of snake attacks, escapes, abandonments and cruelty cases in 43 states. The reptiles have been linked to the deaths of 16 people in the United States, including seven children.

Jury selection to start Monday in Sumter python death trial 07/10/11 [Last modified: Sunday, July 10, 2011 10:10pm]
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