BROOKSVILLE — A Hernando judge on Monday abruptly aborted the trials of two men accused of beating the man known as "the walker" after deciding that local residents knew too much about the case to render an unbiased verdict.
The trials for Jamie Lynn Tyson, 18, and Michael Vann, 24, are likely to land in Lake County, where attorneys will have a better chance of finding six jurors who haven't been exposed to the pretrial publicity surrounding the brutal beating of John Kelly in September 2007.
Kelly, 50, a mentally challenged man, earned his nickname from his daily walks along county roads near his home in Weeki Wachee. His attackers beat him, robbed him and left him for dead in a ditch on Cortez Boulevard near U.S. 19 after he had withdrawn money from an ATM.
The assault attracted widespread media coverage and sparked a huge outpouring of support for Kelly in the community.
It took only moments for this to become apparent during jury selection for the case against Tyson, whose trial was set to begin Monday morning.
Circuit Judge Stephen Rushing began by asking the entire jury pool if they knew anything about "the walker" case. Nearly half of the 44 people raised their arms.
Knowledge of the case isn't grounds for dismissal alone, so Rushing asked the group this question: "From what you've read or heard, do you think you could be fair to both sides?"
"I honestly think I've formed an opinion," one potential juror said.
"I've read quite a bit about it and don't think I can be fair," said another.
From a third potential juror: "I'd have a problem."
And a fourth: "No, sir. I know particulars of why the person walks. I've seen him on numerous occasions."
Before the typical jury qualification began, 20 people were excused. Tyson's attorney, Frank Bankowitz of Orlando, then moved for a change of venue.
He said the simple numbers didn't work. With the prosecution and defense each getting 10 challenges, it left too few people.
"We can't realistically sit a jury in this case in this county," Bankowtiz said.
Assistant State Attorney Don Barbee didn't want to object because he feared the issue could reverse the case at the appellate level.
Barbee said that in his six years in the Hernando prosecutor's office "this is easily the most publicized case that we've had."
Rushing appeared reluctant to move the trial, an extremely rare legal remedy.
The last time a trial left Hernando County was in 1990 when Gary Bushell was tried and acquitted in Sumter County in the strangulation of Diane Wentworth, whose body was found in northwest Hernando in 1983. In 1995, a Lake County jury came to Brooksville to hear the case against serial killer Edwin "Mike" Kaprat III.
"I think it may be best to err on the side of caution," Rushing said in court.
The ruling delayed Tyson's trial and the one for Vann, which was expected to start later this week. A status hearing is scheduled for Wednesday to determine the details of the new venue and to set trial dates.
Tyson and Vann, both from the Weeki Wachee area, are charged with attempted murder, robbery with a deadly weapon and tampering with evidence. Tyson faces an additional charge of conspiracy to commit the robbery.
A third accomplice, Anthony Hawkins, 18, also from the Weeki Wachee area, took a plea deal in which prosecutors dropped the charge of principal to attempted murder in exchange for his testimony. He pleaded guilty to three lesser charges and was sentenced as a juvenile.
Barbee said he thought jury selection might prove difficult, but not impossible. Neither the attorneys nor the judge made a written request for additional jurors, said Jana Murphy, court services director.
A pool of 60 were told to report Monday. Officials anticipated half would show, which is in line with Florida Supreme Court guidelines dictating a jury pool of 30 for a case of this nature. In his questioning of jurors, Tyson's attorney said he was concerned about a St. Petersburg Times article published Sunday that mentioned how two defense witnesses were barred from testifying by the judge. Potential jurors who knew this information, or the alleged assailants' criminal pasts, likely would get dismissed for knowing too much.
But Barbee said the larger issue is how well-known Kelly is in the community. A number of potential jurors said they saw him walking the county roads on a regular basis.
"I think it's more that he's kind of become a local celebrity out of this," he said. "I think it's taken on a life of its own."
John Frank can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 754-6114.