Our coronavirus coverage is free for the first 24 hours. Find the latest information at Please consider subscribing or donating.

  1. Archive

Trial in officer's death begins, again

They joked about their own weight, quoted legal and musical mottos and talked about television _ and after 6{ hours, prosecutors and defense attorneys had picked a jury Monday to retry Lorenzo Jenkins.

Jenkins, 32, of Clearwater, is charged with murdering Belleair police Officer Jeffery Tackett, 28, last year. The first attempt to try him last month ended in a mistrial, which meant picking a new jury and trying him again.

Defense attorney Michael Schwartzberg had been worried about finding jurors who had not formed an opinion of the case based on news reports about Tackett's death and Jenkins' first trial, and had even filed a motion asking that the trial be moved to another city.

But most of the more than 40 people interviewed from the 87-member jury pool said they either hadn't heard about the trial or couldn't recall any details of the news coverage. Only a few knew there had been a mistrial.

More were familiar with what happened June 13, the night Tackett died. Dispatched alone to investigate clicking noises at a Belleair condominium, Tackett surprised a burglar trying to break through a glass door.

But his attempt to arrest the man went awry, and Tackett was shot with his own .45-caliber pistol. He bled to death before other officers found him.

Prosecutors contend Jenkins gunned Tackett down in cold blood. But Schwartzberg argued during the last trial that Tackett's death was a fluke, the result of Tackett's pistol firing accidentally as the two men struggled.

Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty. But if Schwartzberg and the rest of the defense team persuade the jury that their client is guilty of nothing more than third-degree murder, he could get a 30-year prison sentence.

The jury that will try Jenkins this time consists of 10 women and three men (one of whom is a clerk in the Times' Tampa office). Unlike last month's all-white jury, two of the jurors this time are black.

As he did last month, Jenkins watched each potential juror intently while his lawyers questioned them. The other deeply interested observer in the courtroom was Tackett's widow, Alice, who has been working with the Clearwater Jaycees to pass a state law requiring all police departments to put two officers on the night shift, not just one.

As with the previous trial, State Attorney Bernie McCabe personally handled the duties of jury selection for the prosecution. He quoted a motto he saw inscribed on a wall in the Dade County courthouse: "We who labor here seek only truth."

But Schwartzberg quoted a different slogan in warning the would-be jurors that prosecutors must prove every element of their case to convict his client of first-degree murder.

"It's not like Meatloaf said in his song, "Two Out of Three Ain't Bad,' " Schwartzberg said.

McCabe and Schwartzberg both advised prospective jurors they must base their verdict on the testimony and evidence presented in the courtroom and put aside any prejudice they may have.

Glancing down at his own waistline, McCabe added, "You may not like super-big prosecutors walking around in blue suits." Later, Schwartzberg told the potential jurors he was going to stand behind a lectern "because sooner or later it will dawn on you that it's the only thing in this courtroom that's wider than I am."

Schwartzberg also warned the jurors not to expect any dramatic revelations in the case, a la Perry Mason.

"A lot of people think defense attorneys have rabbits up their sleeves," Schwartzberg said. "I can assure you the only thing in this jacket is me."

However, last month's trial ended because of a surprise. Four days into the trial, an FBI expert testified that his test firings of Tackett's gun indicate the officer was shot from at least 5 feet away.

Schwartzberg objected, saying prosecutors had not disclosed the results of those tests to the defense, as required by Florida's rules for conducting criminal trials.

Prosecutors contended they had notified the defense of the tests, but left it up to the defense lawyers to find out what the results were. Still, Circuit Judge Douglas Baird granted a mistrial. To do otherwise, the judge said, would risk having a conviction overturned on appeal.

The trial resumes with opening arguments today at 9 a.m. in the Clearwater courthouse.