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Burn trial move rejected again

At the end of the fifth day of choosing a jury in the Christopher Wilson burning case, Hillsborough Circuit Judge Donald C. Evans declined for the second time to move the trial out of the county.

"As tedious as it is, and as unsuccessful as our efforts have been, I think it is incumbent upon us to proceed," Evans said late Friday afternoon.

Outside the courthouse, a local African-American group urged the judge to keep the trial in Hillsborough and rebuked defense attorneys for suggesting race riots could follow a not guilty verdict.

As the first week of jury selection ended Friday, prosecutors and defense attorneys had questioned 116 potential jurors, approving 36 for a second round of interviews.

Evans has said he would like to create a pool of 55 to 60 candidates from which to choose the final six jurors and two alternates.

Mark Kohut and Charles Rourk are charged with kidnapping and robbing Wilson and setting him afire on New Year's Day. Their attorneys say they are concerned that extensive pretrial publicity makes it impossible for their clients to receive a fair trial here.

Several jury candidates said they believe the defendants are guilty based on what they have learned through the media.

Jury selection "can be done more efficiently and more fairly somewhere else," said Assistant Public Defender Rick Levinson. Defense attorneys would undoubtedly appeal a guilty verdict based on the difficulty seating a jury, he said.

Members of the Concerned African-American Citizens said they were disturbed by insinuations that Tampa's black community would riot over a not-guilty verdict and cautioned that such fears should not be used as an excuse to move the trial.

"If this community was going to riot, it would have happened when the (burning) incident occurred," said Michelle Patty, the group's spokeswoman. "We, as black folks, are willing to let the system work."

But they want the system to work in Hillsborough County, breaking the double standard they said exists in the judicial system.

"When black men commit crimes here, no matter how much press is received, they are tried here," said Patrick Shelby, the coordinator for the organization's executive committee.

"What we are saying to Judge Evans, "Please avoid a double standard, and please do not move this trial.'

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As the news conference unfolded outside the courthouse, Rourk's attorney inside informed a prospective juror of the event. Kay McGucken asked the candidate if he is concerned about possible riots if a not-guilty verdict is reached.

"Are you aware that as we speak there is racial demonstration going on, on the steps of the courthouse?" McGucken asked.

Evans warned McGucken not to discuss things going on outside the courtroom.

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