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Jurors' privacy at issue in case

Published Oct. 9, 2005

Forty-one potential jurors in the Christopher Wilson burning case will be asked today whether they think a promise to keep their identities secret has been breached, a judge said Tuesday.

That decision came a day after a prosecutor's memo listing jurors' names was sent by computer to staff at the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office. The move was questioned by defense attorneys in the case.

The judge had agreed to keep prospective jurors' identities confidential to protect them and avoid outside influence. But prosecutors put out an interoffice memo Monday asking more than 300 staff members for "input" on potential jurors and urging them to show jurors' names to their spouses, roommates or "significant others" for information.

"The dissemination of the memorandum was a violation of your rule," Assistant Public Defender Rick Levinson told the judge.

Circuit Judge Donald C. Evans said he considered the incident "an oversight." A second memo was sent within hours warning the recipients not to divulge potential jurors' names to anyone outside the staff.

"The problem is you can't promise these people confidentiality anymore, and that's something we did promise them," said defense attorney Kay McGucken.

State Attorney Harry Lee Coe III said the memo was intended to find out if jurors had been involved with the office as witnesses or victims and that the line about asking outsiders had been corrected. Coe said he knew of no release of information outside his office.

But Levinson said the fact that the Public Defender's Office knew of the list shows there had been a breach of the judge's order. Levinson asked Tuesday to dismiss the entire panel of 41, or to allow questioning of each potential juror.

"The question is how to address it," Evans said. The judge said if any of them saw a headline or newspaper story about the memo, "it might very well impact their serving on this jury."

"I think at the very least what we're going to have to do is make some inquiry" of the 41 prospective jurors who were told to come back today, the judge said.

This is just the latest snag in the jury selection process in the trial of Lakeland men Mark Kohut and Charles Rourk.

Nearly everyone questioned since June 7 had heard of the black man from New York who police said was robbed and set on fire.

Some said they couldn't put the pretrial publicity aside. Others couldn't spend weeks sequestered in a downtown hotel.

"I wish you the best of luck," a man who was excused told the judge Tuesday. "I don't know if it's going to be possible to find (a jury)."

Meanwhile, court records indicate Wilson returned to Tampa with his mother June 5. The next day, accompanied by a prosecutor and a detective, Wilson visited the Valrico shopping center where he was kidnapped and the field where he was doused with gas and set on fire.

Coe called it "just routine trial preparation."

By Tuesday, 50 potential jurors had been selected. Evans, who has resisted defense requests to move the case, hopes to form a pool of 55 for general questioning and to get to trial by early next week.

"The worst-case scenario is, next Monday morning, here we go again," the judge said.

"I hope we go again somewhere else, judge," McGucken said.