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Trial was fake, but verdict was sincere

There was no question that "Kevin Starr" shot "Gary Booth."

The question was why.

Starr was a Tampa police detective working under cover.

Last Oct. 18, according to Starr, he was accosted by Booth, who pulled a gun and demanded money. Starr pulled his own gun and fired.

Booth, a convicted armed robber, told a different story. He said Starr had been shaking down his prostitute sister, "Dawn," for protection money.

When Booth tried to intervene, the detective made sure no one was watching, shot him and left him for dead after planting a gun on him.

Who was telling the truth? Was this a case of a foolish armed robber, or a crooked cop?

That was the question in this year's version of "Trial By Jury," an annual exhibit at the Florida State Fair sponsored by the Hillsborough Bar Association and various law firms.

Real judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers, officers and court reporters volunteered to play most of the roles in the mock trial, with actors and media figures filling out the rest.

The trial was as realistic as the time restraint allowed. Most days the tent was filled with spectators, six of whom volunteered for a spot on the jury.

As of Friday, the case had been tried 10 times, in front of 10 juries made up of fairgoers, and guess what?

The state lost every time.

That's right. Not a single conviction.

Not even when State Attorney Bill James himself was the prosecutor, not even when real officers played Starr.

Sometimes the defendant was black, sometimes white. It didn't matter. Over the first 10 days there were eight verdicts of not guilty, and two hung juries.

"We considered the hung juries major victories," joked prosecutor Judy Hoyer, this year's chairwoman.

"We've never had anything as lopsided as this," Hoyer said. If anything, she had been worried beforehand that the script was too slanted toward the state.

She was wrong.

Although it was all in good fun, the state's losing streak gave some prosecutors and officers pause, Hoyer said.

"There seemed to be this willingness, even anxiousness, to accept that cops are crooked," she said.

"I'm flabbergasted."

One day I played Kevin Starr, and I vowed to win one for the good guys. My testimony would be sincere, believable. I would not be shaken on the stand.

The defense lawyer, played by Anthony S. Battaglia of St. Petersburg, had other ideas. The word "mincemeat" comes to mind.

Battaglia hammered hard on how Starr could have had time to reach behind his back, draw the gun from his waistband, release the safety and get the drop on Booth, with Booth supposedly standing there with a gun on Starr the whole time.

It's hard to say whether it took the jury longer to elect a foreman or reach its verdict.

Not guilty.

The crowd cheered.

It was interesting to hear the volunteer jurors explain their verdict afterward.

A couple of them had no problem at all believing that a cop could go bad. That left that day's prosecutor, Lee Atkinson, shaking his head.

Remember, there have been no such examples of major police corruption in Tampa, certainly nothing like Miami's problems.

Other jurors said they simply hadn't been convinced of Booth's guilt.

They kind of thought Booth might have tried to rob Starr.

They certainly leaned that way.

But they took seriously the judge's instruction _ the same instruction given in every real trial _ that the state has to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt.

And they had reasonable doubt.

Even in a casual, fairgrounds trial with nothing at stake, citizen-jurors took their instructions seriously. They followed the rules.

In a real case, the state might have had fingerprints, experts, and all sorts of physical evidence _ otherwise it would have thought twice about taking such a weak case to a jury.

But "real" jurors, at least all the ones I've talked to, take their job just as seriously as the people who sat in that jury box at the fairgrounds.

Good thing, too.