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Trial begins for suspects in Paris Whitehead-Hamilton's 2009 murder

LARGO — The often tedious task of picking people for a jury turned emotional on Monday, as several potential jurors expressed their horror over the shooting of an 8-year-old girl.

"When it comes to children, I have a really hard time looking at things objectively," one potential juror said.

Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Nancy Moate Ley asked the woman if she could decide this case based only on evidence presented in court, and she responded, "I can't promise that."

She was excused from jury service, along with 30 others from an original pool of 100.

Some potential jurors wept as they recalled hearing news coverage of Paris Whitehead-Hamilton, who was shot as people wielding assault rifles pumped more than 50 rounds into the house where she lived. Some said they felt so emotional that they could not guarantee being fair.

"I just feel that I have prejudice going into it," one said.

That's how things went during jury selection for the first-degree murder case against Dondre Davis, Stephen Cortez Harper and Duong Dai Nguyen, all 21.

The three are accused of shooting into a house at 771 Preston Ave. S. in St. Petersburg, because they were angry at a man inside. A fourth man, Mario Lewis Walls, already has pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, and is expected to testify against the others. Prosecutors say it was the result of a simmering dispute between neighborhood gangs.

Although Ley said she had hoped attorneys would be able to pick a jury on Monday, it's unclear now if attorneys will even get to opening statements by the end of today.

About 30 new people will be brought in to the jury pool today.

The people who said they felt too biased or emotional to serve on the case were among 44 potential jurors who said they had heard of the 2009 killing through news coverage or other means. Lawyers on both sides said they expect to hear similar reactions during today's session.

Several potential jurors said serving on a jury into Thanksgiving week, and possibly beyond, would be a financial hardship. One man said he works in the hospitality industry and "my paychecks are day to day. I can't afford to take two days off, even."

Some were removed because of previously made travel plans or because they did not speak English well enough to understand the evidence.

Jurors were told the trial would last all of this week and probably into next week. There is even the chance it could extend past Thanksgiving, but Ley said jurors would not have to come in on Thanksgiving Day or the rest of the holiday weekend.

Family members of Paris attended portions of the jury selection on Monday.

Each of the three defense attorneys can remove up to 10 potential jurors, for a total of 30. So prosecutors can strike 30 as well.

Trial begins for suspects in Paris Whitehead-Hamilton's 2009 murder 11/14/11 [Last modified: Monday, November 14, 2011 10:59pm]
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