LARGO — Almost 100 people filed into a cavernous courtroom Monday and crammed onto the rows of wooden benches.
They sat facing a bunch of lawyers — prosecutors, defense attorneys, a judge. But tucked in the line of charcoal suits was Michael Drejka wearing a gray jacket, blue button-up and silver tie. He faced his peers, some of whom may end up deciding whether he walks free in a couple weeks, or whether he heads to prison for up to 30 years.
There's no doubt Drejka, 49, fired the shot that killed 28-year-old Markeis McGlockton in July 2018. The question, as Pinellas-Pasco Judge Joseph Bulone explained to prospective jurors, is whether he pulled the trigger to lawfully defend himself or whether he committed a crime beyond a reasonable doubt.
Drejka's manslaughter trial kicked off with the tedious process of jury selection. Judge Bulone, and lawyers for Drejka and the state, peppered jurors with questions about their trust in law enforcement and potential hardships that would prevent them from serving. The bulk of the process came in the afternoon, when the potential jurors filed in one by one to talk about what they knew about the case, and whether that would get in the way of being fair and impartial.
The morning started with about 90 people, ranging from those who looked to be in their 20s to middle-aged and elderly folks. The pool appeared largely white with few people of color, a notable observation in a case that stoked racial tensions from the start. Drejka is white. McGlockton was black and unarmed.
By the end of the day, the pool was whittled in half. The magic number is six, plus up to four alternates. Florida only has 12-member juries in capital cases.
The court lined up 200 more to come in Tuesday and Wednesday, but Bulone said he thinks they'll be able to get a jury from Monday's group by end of Tuesday.
The morning trotted by as prospective jurors shared their opinions on law enforcement. Struck from the pool were a few who said their positive or negative feelings were so strong that they couldn't separate them when assessing a cop's testimony. Several jurors were excused because they couldn't speak English well.
Another 20 were cut after sharing personal or professional conflicts that would prevent them from staying focused on the trial, including a woman who is planning to visit a relative who has terminal lung cancer, an elementary school teacher just starting her school year and a man who is moving to Tennessee to work on a hemp farm.
To a University of South Florida criminology student starting class next week, Judge Bulone said, "What better learning opportunity than this?"
She was excused.
The pace slowed to a crawl after lunch, when Bulone asked the remaining pool members what they knew about the case. It appeared only about a dozen of the 60 remaining prospective jurors raised their hands.
As the jurors were called in one by one, it seemed like more. The thread between them was surveillance video that captured the whole chain of events: Drejka arguing with McGlockton's girlfriend, McGlockton shoving Drejka to the ground, Drejka pulling his .40-caliber Glock and shooting McGlockton once.
"What we want to make sure of," the judge said at the onset, "is that you haven't made up your mind after seeing the video and that you're going to listen to the other testimony and evidence."
Still, the video gave some in the pool the rare opportunity to put themselves in Drejka's place, like one woman, who said she saw it on social media.
"I just would be, in my own sense, scared myself, so I could see…" she said, trailing off.
She clarified that she could understand acting in self-defense in that situation. But it's not a fixed opinion, she said.
Political views, specifically on self-defense and guns, also came into the mix. One man who looked to be in his late teens or early 20s said he didn't know much about the case but that he was generally against the Second Amendment.
He'd do his best to be a fair and impartial juror, he said, but "there's always going to be some kind of unconscious bias."
The judge and lawyers for each side struck 14 people for apparent bias.
Contact Kathryn Varn at (727) 893-8913 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @kathrynvarn. Contact Dan Sullivan at email@example.com. Follow @TimesDan.