LARGO — The Casey Anthony murder trial took a bizarre twist Tuesday when a witness in the case was discovered among the potential jurors, and apparently talked to others about the highly publicized killing.
Before long, Orange-Osceola Judge Belvin Perry had dismissed the whole group of 49 prospective jurors, including the witness, and made plans to start fresh with a new group this morning.
"Stranger things have happened," Perry said. But it was a surprising coincidence to find a witness for the Orlando murder case among the Pinellas County residents who had been called for jury duty.
"It's just a fluke," said Karen Levey, a spokeswoman for the Orlando area courts.
Perry said he was dismissing the panel "in an abundance of caution," because the witness apparently began discussing the case with other potential jurors. Several in the group acknowledged they had discussed the case.
That is exactly what Perry has tried to avoid. The whole reason that Pinellas jurors will hear this Orlando-based case is because officials want a group of people who are less familiar with the Orlando mother accused of murdering her 2-year-old child, and less likely to have formed opinions about her guilt or innocence.
One woman who was in the group of 49 told the St. Petersburg Times there were plenty of people in the jury pool who already had made up their mind about the case.
Shawna Rizzo of Clearwater said the potential jurors gathered about 8 a.m. Tuesday. At that point, she said, they did not know which case they would be called for. But some people began talking about Casey Anthony, wondering if they could be called for the murder trial that will require 20 Pinellas Country residents to spend six to eight weeks sequestered in Orlando.
As they talked, it became clear that "a good 20 to 30 people had already made up their mind" about the case, Rizzo said. Among that group, she said, "They all think that she killed her kid."
Rizzo said not one person reported believing Anthony was innocent. A couple said they did not know who Anthony was, she said.
Perry has told jurors not to read or view any news accounts about the case, but these discussions came before the group appeared before the judge, according to Rizzo.
Levey said a new group of jurors would be brought in this morning, and they would be brought up to Perry first thing so he can warn them not to discuss the case.
At least a couple of dozen potential jurors have made it through the first phase of questioning and are still eligible to be selected.
The witness who was part of the jury pool had worked with a firm that was involved with the search for Anthony's daughter, Caylee Marie Anthony. An extensive search for the girl was unsuccessful until her remains were located in December 2008, several months after her disappearance. Officials refused to say if the woman was a witness for the defense or prosecution.
Earlier in the day, the judge and attorneys for both sides conducted juror interviews designed to see who could and could not serve on the jury in Orlando for up to two months. Jurors would receive hotel rooms, food and transportation plus $30 a day for most of their service, but they would be away from their families and jobs, and face limitations on where they can go and what kind of news they can watch or read.
Although most of the potential jurors have been excused from the inconvenience of the trial, attorneys fought Tuesday to keep some people in the pool.
One man said he runs a hardware store with 34 employees and that a lot of the management and other work falls to him. "I was unloading trucks this morning before I came here, he said."
It's a family business, his father has suffered serious health problems, and the man said he has a one-week business and pleasure trip to Panama coming up.
But defense attorney Cheney Mason called that an inconvenience, not a "hardship." The man is still in the jury pool.
But others were quickly excused, such as the St. Petersburg College student who's a single mother with a 4-year-old, and the nurse who said he is in the fifth month of a six-month training program.
Times staff writer Danny Valentine contributed to this report. Curtis Krueger can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8232.