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Jury Selection Begins in Orlando for Dontae Morris Case

Certain selected residents of Orange County, FL are potential jurors for the First Degree Murder trial of accused Police Officer killer Dontae Morris. Morris is scheduled for trial in the murders of Tampa Police Officers Jeffrey Kocab and David Curtis after the officers pulled over a car Morris was in three years ago. At the time of Morris being pulled over he was wanted on a warrant out of Jacksonville for a worthless check. Upon his detainer he fired upon and killed Officers Kocab and Curtis. After shooting the officers Morris fled on foot and a manhunt ensued until he ultimately gave himself up at a local Tampa criminal attorney’s office. Due to the nature of the murder charge, Morris could face the death penalty if convicted should a jury ultimately elect to recommend death and the trial Judge oblige their wishes. For now, an Orange County jury will be selected to try the Hillsborough County case. A looming question on the mind of many is why pick a jury in a different jurisdiction?

Due to the subject matter of this trial leading to much media attention and despite the crime occurring in Hillsborough County, the jury will be selected in Orlando and ultimately sequestered in Tampa. Florida’s Constitution, under Article I, Section 16, guarantees that an individual accused of committing a crime shall receive an impartial trial in the county wherein the crime was allegedly committed. As support for this guarantee, Florida Rule of Criminal Procedure 3.240 allows as a safeguard, for the Defendant or the State Attorney’s Office to move for a change of venue. As a basis for this motion the moving party will allege that a fair and impartial trial can’t be had in the county where the crime was committed and as such the trial or at least the jury selection should be moved to another county in the hope that a pool of individuals less familiar with the facts can be found. Florida criminal statute 910.03 dictates that upon a court ordering a change of venue, priority must be given to any county that closely resembles the demographic composition of the county wherein the original venue would lie. Using the Morris case (see also the Casey Anthony case) as an example, the closest county offering the most purported safety in distance with the closes demographic makeup to Hillsborough is Orange County, likely because of the cities of Tampa and Orlando being somewhat similar demographically.

The question in the mind of our Tampa criminal lawyers is, why? We’ve spoken and blogged about this issue with the Casey Anthony and George Zimmerman cases. In this “twitter” age of instant information and the capability for anyone, anywhere to get news, is it really still practical to have a change of venue? The idea that a local prejudice against a defendant is so much more intense than a prejudice 90 miles down the road seems to lose some steam in this generation. Jackson v. State, 359 So.2d 1190 (Fla. 1978). When a criminal attorney alleges that this issue is present, a court uses a test handed down in the case of Manning v. State, 378 So.2d 274 (Fla. 1979). If it is determined that the general state of mind of the local citizens is so flooded with knowledge of the alleged facts of the crime and that they possess a prejudice, bias or opinion so that no local individual could put those prejudices, bias, or opinions form their mind then venue may be changed.

The cases that dictate the test in a change of venue motion are from a time where news didn’t travel as quickly as it does now. As a criminal attorney I’m all for preserving the rights of the people. At the same time it appears that the effectiveness of a change of venue could be waning. The Dontae Morris case has been and will continue to be national news. That said, the nature of the murder allegations are just as startling to an Orange County resident as they are to Hillsborough County residents. With that in mind, is this still and effective means to ensure the greatest chance at a fair trial? Time will tell.

Jason Mayberry is a Federal and State criminal attorney practicing in Florida and Tennessee. Give us a call at 813-444-7435 or at 727-771-3847.

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