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Burning trial will move out of Tampa

The prospective juror, known only as Number 23, cast a baleful eye at the television camera in the corner of the courtroom Wednesday morning.

The judge in the case of the racial torching of a New York tourist had promised to keep jurors' identities secret _ for their protection and to avoid outside influence.

But three people at work already told the woman they recognized her from TV reports on the case, she said.

"If we have no anonymity, there's a fear of retaliation," said the Tampa nurse.

As she spoke, the prosecutor who had resisted defense attorneys' attempts to move the trial from Tampa leaned toward his co-counsel and shook his head.

"There's just too much on this record," whispered State Attorney Harry Lee Coe III.

The incident appeared to be the final straw leading to Wednesday's decision to move the trial after eight long days of jury selection, which included some potential jurors reciting details of the case, watching news reports on courthouse televisions, and finally, two complaining that they had been recognized from TV reports.

Circuit Judge Donald C. Evans, who had resisted defense requests to move the case because of intense publicity, finally agreed the trial of Lakeland men Charles Rourk and Mark Kohut could not be held in Tampa.

The two men, who worked for a labor pool, are charged with attempted murder, robbery and kidnapping and face life terms if convicted. Detectives say they abducted Christopher Wilson at gunpoint, forced him to drive to a remote field, doused him in gasoline and set him on fire.

The brokerage clerk from Brooklyn suffered burns over nearly 40 percent of his body. A note signed "KKK" was found at the scene.

Wilson, awaiting the trial at a Tampa hotel with his mother, took the news of the delay "fairly well," said prosecutor Eric Myers.

"He indicated he was disappointed we were not going to trial. . . . He wished this were over with," Myers said. "He wants to go on with his life. Above all, he wants justice."

Evans noted that nearly all the potential jurors questioned had heard of the case, and many had opinions about it. He read from a case that said jurors should have "minds pure and unprejudiced."

"It appears to this court at this time that cannot be accomplished," Evans said.

"No one can say we didn't put our best efforts into trying to get it resolved here," said Public Defender Julianne Holt, who represents Kohut. "I don't think the court had any choice."

Coe called the judge's decision "courageous and correct."

He said it would be possible to find a fair and impartial jury here _ but it also would be likely that a conviction would be reversed by a higher court because of the record of pretrial publicity.

Alternate sites in Orlando, West Palm Beach and Fort Myers were mentioned in court Wednesday. Holt protested against Orlando, with its tourism industry, because Wilson has been described as a tourist. A decision on the new trial site is expected at an 11 a.m. hearing today, but it will be "clearly, outside of the television market we're in," Evans said.

The judge said he is aiming for an Aug. 23 trial date.

The slow process of selecting six jurors and two alternates began June 7, dragged into the evenings and Saturday, and was expected to take two weeks. As of Tuesday, 50 jurors had been culled from an original pool of 190. The judge wanted a pool of 55 before more specific questioning began.

Finding people willing to serve was difficult because jurors were expected to live sequestered in a hotel for at least two weeks.

Some prospective jurors had been exposed to TV news coverage of the selection process as they waited in a courthouse auditorium. This week, defense attorneys complained that a prosecutor's interoffice memo had encouraged staff members to show a list of the potential jurors' names to their spouses and roommates for input _ names which were supposed to be confidential.

"From day one we knew from the different blunders it was leading up to moving the trial outside of Tampa," said Michelle Patty, spokeswoman for a local group called Concerned African-American Citizens.

The group held a news conference outside the courthouse last week, saying the trial should not be moved and objecting to a defense lawyer's questions about whether jurors were concerned about possible riots in Tampa if they voted for acquittal.

"There was nothing that indicated there would be violence or retaliation," Patty said. "If anything, the African-American community was willing to let the system work."

Patty objected to the judge's decision.

"If it happened here, it should be tried here," she said.