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Burning trial to move to West Palm Beach

The trial of two men accused of setting a tourist on fire in a racial attack near Tampa is headed to West Palm Beach.

Hillsborough Circuit Judge Donald Evans last week agreed to move the high-profile trial of Mark Kohut and Charles Rourk of Lakeland, after eight days of trying to pick a jury here.

Defense attorneys asked for the move because of intense publicity about the attack on Christopher Wilson, a New Yorker who was robbed at gunpoint, doused with gasoline and set on fire on New Year's Day.

"Palm Beach County has agreed to let us come there," Evans said Monday.

Fort Myers and Orlando also were mentioned as relocation sites. Kohut's attorney objected to Orlando because it relies on tourism and Wilson has been described as a tourist.

Wilson said he was disappointed in the delay and wanted to get the trial over with.

The jury selection process in Tampa was fraught with hurdles. Most people questioned knew about the incident; some had opinions about the case. Many didn't want to be sequestered for the trial.

One day, potential jurors were exposed to television coverage of the selection process as they waited in a courthouse auditorium. Another day, a list of jurors' names that was supposed to be confidential was circulated to prosecutors and staff who were asked to show it to their spouses or "significant others."

And on the day the judge agreed to change the venue, two jurors complained they had been recognized from TV news programs.

The judge set a tentative trial date of Aug. 23 in West Palm Beach. The state Supreme Court first must approve the new location.

Palm Beach and Hillsborough counties are similar in makeup, according to the 1990 census. Palm Beach's population was 863,518; Hillsborough's was 834,054. Palm Beach was 84.8 percent white and 12.5 percent black; Hillsborough was 82.2 percent white and 13.2 percent black.

_ Times researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.

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