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Jury Selection Continues in Police Murder Defendant Dontae Morris’ Case

Attorneys for the State of Florida and alleged Tampa Police Officer shooter Dontae Morris continue to quest to pick a jury for Morris’ upcoming murder trial for the death of Rodney Jones outside of a Tampa nightclub. Morris’ name may sound familiar as he is the suspect accused of killing Tampa Police officers Jeffrey Kocab and David Curtis on June 29, 2010 after a routine stop of his girlfriend’s vehicle. Because of the media coverage of the death of the two officers, Morris’ jury selection has been moved to Orlando in an effort to find a jury pool less familiar with the allegations in the hope of finding a jury of individuals unbiased and unfamiliar with this case. Though this practice has been used for years, the Tampa criminal lawyers at The Mayberry Law Firm have doubts as to its effectiveness in our day of modern technology.

In any high profile criminal trial, be it Casey Anthony and the accusation of murder for the death of her little girl, Jodi Arias and the accusation of murder for the death of her boyfriend or anything involving the death of a local police officer there gives the rise of doubt that a jury free from bias can be seated in the county holding jurisdiction over the allegations. Tampa criminal lawyer Jason Mayberry blogged in May 2011 about this very issue as it concerned the jury selection for Casey Anthony held in Pinellas County. Within that blog our firm expressed doubt that the change of venue protection still legitimately exists.

Article I, Section 16 of Florida’s Constitution guarantees an accused will receive an impartial trial in the county holding jurisdiction over the criminal allegation. In conjunction to that Constitutional guarantee, Florida Rule of Criminal Procedure 3.240 provides that either the State Attorney or the Defendant may move the Court for a change of venue, alleging that a fair and impartial trial cannot possibly be had in the home county of jurisdiction. Florida Statute 910.03 says that in ordering a change of venue for jury selection the Court must “give priority to any county which closely resembles the demographic composition of the county wherein the original venue would lie.” In this instance it appears that Judge Fuente feels that Orange County satisfies the dictate of 910.03.

So, practically what happens when venue is changed? Not much really. Though a jury is selected in a different county, once selected that jury will be sequestered to the county of original jurisdiction and asked to be the trier of fact in the case. Does it work? Our Tampa criminal attorneys say no. The reason to change venue is based on the idea that a locale’s prejudice would be so severe that it would be impossible to empanel an impartial jury. Jackson v. State, 359 So.2d 1190 (Fla. 1978). The case of Manning v. State, 378 So.2d 274 (Fla. 1979) sets forth the test on this issue. Manning says a Court must determine if the state of mind of those in the community is so inundated with knowledge of the alleged crime and the prejudice, bias and opinions that accompany, that no juror could put these out of their mind and try the case on only the evidence before them.

Ok. In the late 1970’s and even into the 1980’s I can see where a criminal attorney would feel a little more comfortable with this process. Those are not the times we live in. Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Google Plus, Linked In, Nancy Grace and Anderson Cooper were not a factor back then. They are now and they spread information faster than it has ever travelled. Is it still reasonable to believe that we can move a jury selection on a major media case to another Florida county and expect that county’s people not to fail the Manning test? That doesn’t seem reasonable and frankly it’s scary as hell. Where are we to go for a fair and impartial jury free of media inundation?

At the end of the day we’ll play this hand until a better method is implemented. Regardless of where a juror lives they will hear about major cases much to the same extent as one would who lives in the county of the incident. Judge’s will grant these motions in an effort to curb appealable issues but the rule simply isn’t up to speed with technology. Time will tell where we will go from here.