ORLANDO — Half a week of painstaking jury selection for the man accused of killing two Tampa police officers was nearly spoiled Wednesday when an 80-year-old woman blurted out details of the defendant's criminal history in front of a large group of prospective jurors.
Those jurors are not supposed to know about any accusations besides the police murders with which defendant Dontae Morris, 28, is charged. But a judge ruled Wednesday that jury selection would proceed despite the outburst, which could still be a potent issue for an appeal.
A final slate of 12 jurors and four alternates is expected to be picked today.
Trouble began Wednesday afternoon as potential jurors were being asked their opinions about capital punishment. If found guilty of the 2010 killings of Officers Jeffrey Kocab and David Curtis, Morris could be sentenced to death.
Jury candidate Gloria Kaasa said she would not hesitate to impose the death penalty on someone for a "repeat performance" and that it was a "waste of taxpayers' money" to imprison, rather than kill, a criminal who already had been found guilty of a previous murder.
"Guilty, guilty, guilty," she said.
Hillsborough Circuit Judge William Fuente sent the entire jury pool out of the courtroom, then called Kaasa back to be questioned alone. Her remarks, she admitted, were a reference to Morris' murder conviction earlier this year in a separate case.
"If this is the case I think it is, I am familiar with it," she said. "About Tampa and the two police … he's probably in prison now, or was, because he had committed a murder prior to that."
Fuente had tried Monday and Tuesday — apparently without success — to weed out jury candidates familiar with the case. Jury selection is taking place in Orlando to find men and women who have not been exposed to news coverage of the killings.
Kaasa said she recalled the details only after her declaration earlier this week that she had never heard of the case.
Fuente has ruled that jurors would be prejudiced against Morris in this case if they were to learn about the earlier murder conviction or about two additional pending murder charges. No evidence related to those cases will be presented at trial.
Yet the judge denied a defense motion Wednesday to start jury selection over again, saying Kaasa's remarks were ambiguous enough that those unfamiliar with the case would not have picked up on what she meant.
"That was close," Fuente said.
Even if it does not have repercussions in coming weeks, the incident is likely to become ammunition for an appeal if Morris is found guilty. Procedural missteps that cast doubt on a trial's fairness — particularly during jury selection — are often the basis for reversals of death sentences.
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Charles Rose, a professor at Stetson University College of Law, said he expects the episode to fuel either further defense motions or an appeal down the road. The integrity of the jury pool is further called into question by the chance that Kaasa might have shared her knowledge with other prospective jurors outside of court, Rose said.
"They don't know yet how big a problem they have," he said.
Kaasa told Fuente that she had not shared information about the case with other jurors.
Prosecutors declined to comment on the episode after court adjourned Wednesday.
Byron Hileman, one of Morris' defense attorneys, said he would renew his objection to the current course of jury selection before the final jury is seated.
"I can't speak for other people. All I can tell you is, when I heard it, it sure made my heart race faster," Hileman said. "Are other interpretations of what she said possible? Of course. But our interpretation was that she was … implying that there was another criminal case involving Mr. Morris."