TAMPA - It had the atmosphere of a grade school auditorium, with a principal scolding his students for talking during an important assembly.
"You ought to be ashamed of yourself," said William Fuente, as if he was putting the seated crowd of 100 on detention. "This is and has been extremely disappointing to me and everyone involved," he said.
Only this wasn't a school. This was jury selection at the Hillsborough County courthouse. And Mr. Fuente isn't a principal. He's a Circuit Court Judge.
"Your actions created this situation because you violated that solemn oath," Fuente said before expelling them all, effectively ruining the jury selection process for the first murder trial of Dontae Morris, a five-time suspected killer.
The judge made the stunning decision after it was revealed that numerous jurors in the pool of 200 were caught discussing the case amongst themselves, which is strictly forbidden. Potential jurors were given a written order by the judge not to gossip.
"It's as high a profile case as I've ever been near, and that kind of lends itself to a lot of people talking," said Byron Hileman, Morris's defense attorney. "People were talking and spreading information that is simply not permitted," he said.
Hileman has requested that the trial be moved to a different Florida county because of pre-trial publicity.
Several of the dismissed jurors expressed their frustration about spending more than two days at the courthouse and accomplishing nothing.
"I definitely think this was blatant disrespect," said Dottye Hurst, who claimed she kept her mouth shut during the proceedings. "I can't blame Judge Fuente for being mad someone who would blab."
Robert Smith said for blue collar workers like himself, it costs money to be off the job. He, too, claimed to have followed the rules. Smith said he would have had words with those who didn't.
"Had we known who some of them were, we would have chastised them, too," Smith said.
But April Peterson had harsh words for the jury selection process.
"They were extremely unorganized," Peterson said, referring to the method of leaving jurors in large groups with little supervision.
After she was dismissed, Peterson recalled how difficult it was to sit for hours on end without talking to other jurors.
"Waiting around with 200 people, you have to know that they're going to talk," Peterson said.
The jury dismissal was an emotional setback for the family of Rodney Jones, who prosecutors said was shot to death by Morris outside a West Tampa nightclub May 31, 2010 during a robbery. It's likely the jury selection process won't resume until next year.
"We were just so close to the finish line," said Daphne Stephens, Jones' sister. "It kind of delays our healing," she said.
Morris himself showed little reaction as the jurors filed out of the courtroom. He faces additional murder trials for the shooting deaths of Tampa police officers Jeffrey Kocab and David Curtis during a traffic stop. Derek Anderson and Harold Wright are the other murder victims.
Criminal defense attorney and legal analyst Joe Episcopo said that it's likely word spread quickly among jurors after they heard who Dontae Morris was, especially with his alleged involvement in the police shootings.
"Once the buzz gets out that, wow, this is a big deal, they start talking," Episcopo said. He predicts Judge Fuente may have up the penalty for his next class of potential jurors.
"He's going to tell them, 'You discuss this case, and you're going to jail.'"
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