TAMPA — Confronted Friday with an errant yet remorseful juror whose misbehavior could have ruined a death-penalty murder trial, a judge chose a punishment that fit the crime.
But it could be argued that the judge's order for the offender — report for jury duty one week a month for the next three months — was a more cruel punishment than jail.
Back in October, would-be juror Vishnu P. Singh was caught researching a highly publicized murder case during jury selection. Over lunch, he told other jurors what he'd done. One of them reported him.
Singh didn't know it, but he had messed with the worst possible judge.
Hillsborough Circuit Judge William Fuente was presiding over the first-degree murder trial of Kenneth Ray Jackson, 30, charged with raping and fatally stabbing a 50-year-old Seffner mother of three in 2007.
Fuente's previous attempt to try Jackson had failed in 2011 when lawyers couldn't find 12 acceptable jurors out of a pool of 60. Many said they could not impose the death penalty under any circumstances.
The same judge presided over another failed high-profile murder trial in August. That was to be the first of four trials for Dontae Morris, who is accused of committing five murders in 2010, including those of two Tampa police officers.
The Morris trial was stopped and 80 prospective jurors were dismissed after Fuente learned that some had gossiped about Morris' multiple charges during rest periods. Fuente scolded the bad jurors, but charged none of them with contempt of court.
But in October, when Singh Googled the Jackson case, Fuente was clearly fed up. He had Singh thrown out of the courthouse after telling him to prepare for jail when he was summoned back.
On Friday, Singh, an engineer for Bright House Networks, begged Fuente's forgiveness, telling him, "Curiosity got the better of me."
Fuente told Singh that if he had been caught after the trial started, it would have caused a mistrial. The jurors who were chosen eventually convicted Jackson and recommended the death penalty.
The judge said he had no doubt that other jurors disobey orders and research cases. Singh's punishment, he said, could serve as an example.
"It's important that this be brought to the public's attention."
But the judge had something other than jail in mind. Instead, he said Singh would receive a summons for jury duty one week per month for the next three months. Or else.
"Failing that," the judge said, "you will serve five days in jail."
John Barry can be reached at (813) 226-3383 or firstname.lastname@example.org.