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Man suffers seizure at jury hearing

At 7:27 p.m. Monday, in full view of 18 potential jurors for his trial on a murder charge, Robert Phillips suffered an epileptic seizure, first growling, then becoming rigidly unconscious, experiencing spasms and collapsing to the floor. The episode left courtroom officials shaken. Phillips' attorneys moved from their client as the seizure began, while court bailiffs attended to him.

With Phillips still lying on the floor, Circuit Judge Jack Springstead discharged the jury pool for the night.

Those seizure exemplified one facet in a difficult trial.

Phillips, 45, a puffy, pale man with awkwardly combed hair, is accused of killing his 74-year-old mother, Agatha Phillips.

He is a victim of epilepsy, and his attorney said he will argue that Phillips was insane when he allegedly attacked his mother Aug. 27, 1988, in their Spring Hill home. From the time of the killing until now, he was considered psychologically unfit to stand trial.

Phillips is accused of killing his mother by cutting most of the way through her neck with a kitchen knife.

"It usually doesn't take this long to pick a jury, but this case has complicated issues," Assistant State Attorney William Gross said Monday.

From 10:30 a.m. to 7:40 p.m., Gross and Assistant Public Defender Alan Fanter tried to acquaint potential jurors with those issues.

Phillips "had a tough life," Gross told the potential jurors. "He has seizures or the threat of them every day."

The potential jurors were warned that Phillips might have an epileptic seizure during the trial. They were warned they would be shown gruesome pictures of the crime scene.

They were asked whether they respected psychiatrists and psychologists. They were asked if they thought a person could be sane one day and insane the next.

They were asked whether they had ever been victims of a crime.

In the first panel of 18 potential jurors, five of them said they had been. A thief took the car of one, burglars struck the homes, offices or cars of others.

Two of the potential jurors have relatives with epilepsy.

Several repeatedly voiced fears: that they couldn't understand the complicated issues, that they wouldn't feel comfortable rejecting testimony of experts, that they didn't like the idea of making moral or legal judgments of another person.

"I'm nervous," said one retiree on the prospective jury panel. "I would be absolutely useless to you. I don't think I could do it. I don't think I could render a fair verdict."

The first group of potential jurors included a retired computer operator, an unemployed construction worker who said he had a memory problem, a retired fire department official, a former post office clerk and a retired hospital worker.

Two of the possible jurors belong to the same church as Phillips.

One potential juror said she already had made up her mind about Phillips' guilt or innocence.

Monday afternoon, she was thanked and relieved from jury duty. So were the nervous man and the construction worker with memory problems.

So was a woman who was certain of her impartiality and her ability to reach a sound decision.

Phillips sat quietly through the questioning.When jurors were led from the room past Phillips, he looked at them. They didn't look back.

Shortly after 5 p.m., the second cluster of potential jury members came into the courtroom.

After two hours of questioning, the prosecutor and defense counsel were about to pare down that jury pool when Phillips' seizure began.