ORLANDO — Jury selection in the Dontae Morris murder case almost derailed Wednesday afternoon when a jury candidate started to blurt out information jurors are not supposed to know.
A jury is being selected in Orlando because Circuit Judge William Fuente decided it was not possible to pick a fair panel in Hillsborough County. Fuente tried to pick a jury for another murder trial involving Morris last year, but he had to stop when he lost control of jury candidates, who couldn’t stop telling each other information about Morris’ other cases.
Morris is now about to stand trial on charges he murdered two Tampa police officers, David Curtis and Jeffrey Kocab. If convicted of first-degree murder, he faces a possible death sentence. He already is serving a life sentence after being convicted of murdering another man, Rodney Jones, and faces two more murder trials involving two other victims.
Jurors in each trial are not supposed to know about the other murder cases when deciding whether to convict Morris. The first jury selection attempt in the Jones killing fell apart when jurors talked about the police killings.
On Monday, Fuente, along with the defense and prosecution, began questioning potential jurors about their knowledge of Morris and their ability to leave their lives in Orange County to serve on a panel sequestered in a Hillsborough County hotel for the duration of the Morris trial.
By Wednesday, Fuente had excused about half of the potential jurors, leaving 74 candidates. So the judge and lawyers spent the day quizzing jurors about their views on the death penalty.
By the end of the day, 52 jury candidates remained in the pool.
One woman, who has difficulty hearing, apparently hadn’t realized until Wednesday that she actually did remember hearing information about Morris. And so, in front of other jurors, when asked about her views about the death penalty, the woman said, “I have a little theory. You’re found guilty. ... You’re wasting our taxpayers money to do another performance and another performance. ... You’re guilty, guilty, guilty.” She said it was a waste “if they were indicted for the second time for murder.”
Assistant State Attorney Jay Pruner stopped questioning the woman and the lawyers huddled with Fuente before Pruner returned and immediately began questioning the next juror.
Later, the woman was brought in and interviewed alone. She said she was familiar with the case because she has a daughter who lives in the Tampa area and just realized who Morris was. She said she had not said anything to other jurors.
Fuente dismissed her from the jury pool. As she left the courtroom, the judge said, “That was close.”
Defense lawyer Byron Hileman later made a motion to dismiss the entire panel, arguing that the woman had said too much in front of the others.
But Assistant State Attorney Scott Harmon responded that the woman had not revealed enough to affect the integrity of the panel.
Fuente agreed with the prosecutor. “Out of the presence of the jury – thank goodness out of the presence of the jury – she told us she knew of the other situation,” the judge said.