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Man accused in Bayshore rape chooses his own jury

TAMPA — The rape suspect stood at a lawyer's lectern Monday, wearing a suit his mother brought him. He stood alone.

Luis Munuzuri-Harris, who has no law degree, decided to represent himself at his trial this week in Hillsborough County, where his first challenge was picking a jury.

A pool of 39 potential jurors stared back at him. Six would end up on his jury, and must decide whether Harris posed as a cop to pull over a woman and rape her along Bayshore Boulevard.

Repeatedly, a judge asked Harris if he'd changed his mind about not wanting an attorney. But Harris insisted on going solo. And so, with a voice softer than the prosecutor's, he began:

"Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen …

"I'm going to ask you to bear with me a little bit. Obviously, I'm not a trained professional …"

• • •

Typically, in these proceedings called voir dire, potential jurors are asked questions to reveal their biases. Lawyers inquire about exposure to pretrial publicity, history as either a victim or a defendant in a crime, and thoughts about important legal philosophies, such as the presumption that one is innocent until proved guilty.

Harris, 31, asked some of those questions. And he asked others that were more loaded.

"Do you believe that police can sometimes overreact?"

"Has anybody ever been accused of something they didn't do?"

"How do you feel about law enforcement taking someone and parading them in front of the media, just based on one arrest?"

"If a woman cried rape as opposed to a man, would the woman's word be more credible to you?"

• • •

Earlier Monday, Harris got some news he didn't like from the Hillsborough Public Defender's Office. He called it retaliatory.

The attorney once appointed to defend him — one he tried to get a judge to admonish because she didn't return all his phone calls — would not be serving as his standby counsel.

Instead, the office had sent over two male public defenders: Chuck Traina and Mike Peacock. They stood before him. Throughout the course of the morning, he declared that one was hostile; the other, not a good communicator.

Ultimately, the judge chose yet another lawyer: Christopher Boldt of the regional conflict office, a state-funded agency that steps in when public defenders declare conflicts.

That wasn't the attorney Harris wanted at his side.

In recent weeks, Assistant Public Defender Maria Pavlidis had devoted 90 percent of her time to his case. But she needed four more months to prepare. Harris refused to waive his right to a speedy trial. He opted, instead, to defend himself.

But he wanted her there with him, available for his questions.

• • •

He appeared nervous. He wasn't clear. He called out the wrong names. He looked like he was just trying to come up with questions.

Those were the observations of four potential jurors who spoke to the Times after their dismissal from the pool.

They thought he should have stuck with a lawyer instead of representing himself.

"He didn't gain anything, but I think he lost a lot," said Justin Finger. "He kind of dug himself in a hole."

But the only opinions that matter belong to the two women and four men chosen to spend the week in the jury box, along with two alternate jurors.

As soon as today, they will watch Harris cross-examine the state's witnesses, including, potentially, his alleged victim.

Alexandra Zayas will be tweeting the trial this week via www.twitter.com/tampabaycom.

Man accused in Bayshore rape chooses his own jury 01/10/11 [Last modified: Monday, January 10, 2011 11:00pm]
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