TAMPA — Not long after they crammed into six rows of wooden benches this week in Hillsborough County’s largest courtroom, dozens of people were asked a question few ever have to answer: Could they sentence a man to death?
Late Monday and into Tuesday, the 93 prospective jurors who said they knew nothing about the case of Granville Ritchie and could commit to attending a three-week trial learned for the first time the gravity of what was before them.
They were told that Ritchie is accused of strangling a 9-year-old girl named Felecia Williams in 2014. They were told that he is also accused of raping her. And they were told that the state plans to seek capital punishment.
Brows furrowed when the jurors heard the wording of the indictment. They gazed at Ritchie, who sat at a defense table wearing a crisp black suit jacket with a handkerchief tucked in the front pocket. He looked back at them.
“In criminal law, it doesn’t get any more serious than what we’re dealing with here,” Hillsborough Assistant State Attorney Scott Harmon told the panel.
The prosecutor explained that the trial will have a guilt phase and a penalty phase. The 12 people selected to serve on the jury will first have to decide if Ritchie is guilty. If he is, they will then have to decide if the 40-year-old man’s crimes merit the death sentence.
The state will have to prove the existence of at least one aggravating factor — a circumstance that suggests death may be an appropriate sentence. In Ritchie’s case, the prosecution has claimed two aggravating factors: that the victim was less than 12 years old and that the crime was committed during a sexual battery and an aggravated child abuse.
The jury will also hear about mitigating factors: circumstances his defense might present to argue that his life should be spared.
On Monday, Ritchie’s attorneys filed a notice listing 10 mitigating factors they want to bring up. They include a claim that Ritchie suffered a head injury as a child, that he suffered mental and physical abuse throughout his upbringing, and that he grew up amid poverty and violence in his native Kingston, Jamaica.
The jurors were told they must be unanimous for a death sentence to be imposed. If anyone disagrees, the sentence will be life in prison without parole.
The identities of jurors are shielded by the courts during trials. Several expressed moral objections to capital punishment.
“There have been a lot of things in the news about people who were wrongfully convicted," said one man. “Because of things like that, I would never support the death penalty.”
Another said he works as a registered nurse. His job, he said, is to help people and heal the sick.
“I don’t think I should be able to take a life.” he said.
Some said capital punishment was contrary to their religious values, that they could not live with themselves if they played a part in imposing a death sentence.
“I think it’s barbaric under any circumstance,” said another man. “It doesn’t bring anything back.”
A woman sitting near the rear of the courtroom, her face buried in the crowd, told the court she was against the death penalty, but waffled on the issue. She said if something happened to her or her loved ones she would have to consider the circumstances.
“I’m morally against it,” she said, “but I do have to put myself in the shoes of other people as well."
Harmon, the prosecutor, asked her to imagine what she would do if she was selected for the jury in the Ritchie case. He told her she would be seated steps away from Ritchie, that she would be able to see him writing notes and chatting with his attorneys.
“He’s going to be breathing and he’s going to be blinking and he’s going to be fully alive,” Harmon said. “And at some point, the state of Florida is going to ask you to sentence him to death ... Can you do that?”
“I honestly have to say I don’t know,” the woman said.
Other jurors were less hesitant. Many said they felt death could be an appropriate sentence, depending on the severity of the circumstances.
For much of Tuesday afternoon, defense attorney Bjorn Brunvand asked his own questions. He wanted to know: if a person is found guilty of premeditated murder, did anyone think that death should be the only penalty?
“The most appropriate (penalty),” said one woman, adding that she would lean toward the state’s position in such a case.
Brunvand asked if there were certain factors that would sway her even further toward death.
“When it’s a child,” she said.
By the end of Tuesday, 23 jurors were dismissed. They included those who said they could not sentence someone to death, or that death was the only penalty they’d consider for premeditated murder. Jury selection will continue Wednesday.