Wednesday, January 17, 2018
News Roundup

Orlando jury picked to hear Dontae Morris murder trial

ORLANDO — After two days in Orange County, a Hillsborough County judge was able to accomplish what he could not back home:

Seat a jury that could be fair to one of Tampa's most notorious defendants, Dontae Morris.

Tuesday evening, prosecutors and defense attorneys agreed on 12 jurors and three alternates to transport to Tampa on Sunday, where they will be housed in a hotel for an expected four days of testimony, which starts Monday.

The group is made up of eight men and seven women. Among them are a U.S. Postal Service supervisor, a women's health coordinator and a project manager for NASA. They do not know which of them are alternates.

Several have served as jurors before, including one man who served on four trials, including two murder cases.

They all swore they could presume Morris innocent until he is proven guilty.

Morris, 27, is best known in Hillsborough as the target of a massive manhunt sparked after the 2010 shooting deaths of Tampa police Officers Jeffrey Kocab and David Curtis. If convicted of those murders, he could face the death penalty.

But this murder trial will not deal with that case, and in this one Morris can receive a maximum of life in prison.

While Morris is accused of killing a total of five men, these jurors know only of 42-year-old Rodney Jones, shot dead outside the Cotton Club in West Tampa.

Attorneys spent Tuesday questioning the panelists about their ability to be fair during a trial.

Morris, clad in a shirt and tie, took notes.

His attorneys got rid of a man with a law enforcement background, concerned he would be biased toward the prosecution.

Prosecutors cut an African-American pastor who had ministered to juveniles in a detention center, concerned he would be sympathetic to Morris.

The selection Tuesday was no different from that of any Tampa murder case — except it happened in the two-story penthouse courtroom where the world had watched the trial of Casey Anthony.

And the judge was escorted in by deputies with semiautomatic rifles that looked straight out of a video game.

And spectators were patted down twice and made to drink from their water bottles to prove it didn't contain poison.

For most of the day, "spectators" meant only four people — two supporters of Morris, and two Tampa-based journalists.

In Orlando, it turned out, Morris was just a stranger.

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