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From 137, only 43 left for jury of 6

For six consecutive days, dozens of potential jurors have filed into the courtroom, some looking intimidated by the TV camera in the corner and by the prospect of being questioned by a pack of lawyers.

Nearly all said they've heard of Christopher Wilson, the New Yorker who was robbed and set on fire because of the color of his skin.

And many had a word or two about what happened in that remote field Jan. 1: A terrible crime. Vicious. Horrible. Mean. Sad. A shame.

"I remember being embarrassed to live in an area where that could happen," one woman said.

The community's knowledge of the case against Lakeland men Charles Rourk and Mark Kohut _ and the time jurors are expected to be taken away from jobs and families _ has toughened the process of selecting a jury. By Saturday evening, after interviewing 137 prospects, 43 people had been picked for a preliminary pool of 60. The final six jurors and two alternates will be chosen from that pool.

Though defense attorneys repeatedly have wrung their hands about pretrial publicity and how it may be impossible for people to separate that from trial evidence, Circuit Judge Donald C. Evans has remained steadfast about trying to get a fair jury here.

And so the long days in the cavernous, pea-green courtroom have gone. Potential jurors were questioned in two areas: First, could they put aside what they previously heard about the case?

No, some said.

"What was done to the gentleman was so hideous . . . I don't think anyone can convince me they didn't do it," one elderly woman said Saturday. She was excused.

Then came the question of spending two to three weeks in a downtown hotel for the duration of the trial, with only limited, supervised contact with families.

Potential jurors spoke of the demands on their schedules: a daughter's softball championship, a son's graduation. One woman crisply informed lawyers that she could take the summer college course she signed up for next fall "if you guys want to pay the costs."

One woman had to sew Little League uniforms in time for opening day.

When another was asked if anything would prevent her from serving, she replied, "Baby birds."

Pardon? the judge asked.

She raises them for extra income, the woman explained. They need food every few hours.

"Thank God for my baby birds," she murmured as she left the courtroom, excused.

The questioning process has been like a magician who pulls an endless stream of scarves from his seemingly empty hand. Many potential jurors said they knew very little about the case, but under prodding, came up with fine point details: the local hospital where Wilson recovered, the lack of physical evidence against the defendants, the plea deal for suspect-turned-eyewitness Jeffery Pellett.

A man remembered Kohut because that's his friend's name. A woman said she has a New York cousin named Christopher Wilson.

"The more you ask, the more they start to recall," Public Defender Julianne Holt said.

This first week has showcased the different styles of two newly elected officials facing off in their first case. State Attorney Harry Lee Coe III is debuting as a prosecutor in the same courtroom where he was a judge for 22 years. In jury questioning, he stood behind a podium, his voice often rising to the rafters like a Sunday preacher. Holt, a longtime defense attorney, stood a little closer to each juror, occasionally sharing a laugh.

At the defense table, Kohut and Rourk are cleaned-up versions of the scruffy twosome arrested in January. Gone are Rourk's beard and longish blond locks. Wearing a neat tie, he sat almost perfectly still throughout the proceedings, reading documents or simply staring ahead.

Kohut, his friend from the labor pool, has been more animated, chatting with lawyers, flipping through depositions, his intense eyes scanning the courtroom.

The small swastika tattooed on his hand has been unnoticeable.

All week, the judge has resisted defense attorneys' attempts to get him to move the case out of Hillsborough County. He too has expressed frustration at the slow pace, but said he is determined to press on. Friday, a local African-American group agreed with him.

The judge's last words to lawyers as courtroom spectators rubbed eyes and stifled yawns Saturday: See you Monday.

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