TAMPA — For the next month, 12 jurors will hear the tragic story of Cuc Thu Tran, a 50-year-old Seffner mother who went for a predawn jog in pink curlers five years ago, but never made it home to her husband and three children.
For most of this week, a judge and lawyers will try to find jurors who can serve long enough to hear the whole story, then decide whether Kenneth Ray Jackson, the man accused of abducting, raping and murdering Tran that morning, deserves the death penalty.
A year ago, the court failed to find enough jurors out of a pool of 60. An unwillingness to consider the death penalty disqualified many of them. This time, Hillsborough Circuit Judge William Fuente has recruited 200 potential jurors. He said selection will take at least until Thursday.
When the trial actually starts, the jurors will hear how Tran, who had three sons, ages 23, 16 and 10, set out at 5:30 a.m. on Sept. 13, 2007, for her regular jog near St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church on County Road 579 in Seffner. Soon after, at 6:50 a.m., deputies responded to a burning vehicle in Gibsonton, about 12 miles from the church.
It was a Dodge minivan, stolen from the parking lot of Advance Discount Auto Parts at 11850 State Road 574. A woman's body was inside. She wore jewelry and pink rollers in her hair, sheriff's officials said.
About 2 p.m., a lawn maintenance worker at St. Francis of Assisi found a woman's bloody clothing as he was cutting grass.
Two hours later, Tran's sons reported her missing.
The Medical Examiner's Office identified the body as Tran. She had died of stab wounds before the van was set ablaze. Over the next three days, deputies made about 2,500 contacts through traffic stops and blockades.
They said their best lead came from a convenience store worker who told them a customer named "Kenny" had mentioned facts about the death that hadn't been publicized.
The tip led to a search for Jackson, who had been living in the same Seffner mobile home park as Tran, authorities said. He had recently finished a four-year term in prison for grand theft. Deputies tracked Jackson to Carrabelle, a Panhandle town nearly 300 miles north. They said a DNA sample Jackson provided matched a sample found on Tran.
Jackson, now 30, is charged with first-degree, premeditated murder, sexual battery with a deadly weapon, arson and grand theft of the van.
Jurors will spend the first two weeks of the trial deciding Jackson's guilt or innocence. If they convict him, they will reconvene to decide whether to recommend the death penalty to the judge.
John Barry can be reached at (813) 226-3383 or [email protected]