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Most potential jurors in Orlando do not recognize Dontae Morris

Dontae Morris has his handcuffs removed as he joins his court-appointed attorney, Byron Hileman, in the courtroom for jury selection in Orlando on Monday for his murder trial.

PHELAN M. EBENHACK | Special to the Times

Dontae Morris has his handcuffs removed as he joins his court-appointed attorney, Byron Hileman, in the courtroom for jury selection in Orlando on Monday for his murder trial.

ORLANDO — They didn't want to go to Tampa.

But that didn't matter.

Hillsborough Circuit Judge William Fuente needed jurors who had never heard of Dontae Morris, the subject of the most massive manhunt in Tampa history. The judge had tried and failed to find them back home.

So he moved jury selection to Orange County, where Monday, he asked 150 of its citizens to lay eyes on the defendant.

Only three recognized the face or name of the man accused of killing five men, including two Tampa police officers.

The challenge became getting the rest to agree to be shuttled to Tampa by deputies, sleep in a hotel and commit to staying for the better part of next week for the first-degree murder trial expected to last four days.

It was not easy.

Many jurors did not raise their hands when Fuente asked to see who was willing and able to serve in the Tampa trial.

But he pressed on.

"I'm not going to put anybody in an impossible situation," the judge said. "But I will put you in a difficult situation, and I'm sorry … If I pushed you, you would do it?"

To the woman who spoke of her workload: "What would happen if you got the flu?"

To the man expecting an eviction notice: "What if you get served Monday?"

He wouldn't get served because he wouldn't be home, the man said.

"Well," the judge responded. "That's good for you."

Seating a panel this week is important to Fuente. He tried to do the same last year in Tampa, but publicity and gossip tainted the pool.

Morris' face was on posters, fliers and the news after the shooting deaths of Officers Jeffrey Kocab and David Curtis during a June 2010 traffic stop. He was later charged with three other murders, including the death of 42-year-old Rodney Jones during an attempted robbery outside the Cotton Club in West Tampa.

Jones' death will be the subject of Morris' first trial. If convicted, he faces life in prison. Testimony starts next week.

All 64 jurors who made it past the first round Monday were told to return to court today, where they are expected to answer more traditional jury selection questions about their views on criminal justice.

Fuente left each of them with an order he hopes that, this time, they will follow:

"Don't read anything. Don't listen to anything. Don't talk to anyone about this case."

Alexandra Zayas can be reached at azayas@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3354.

Most potential jurors in Orlando do not recognize Dontae Morris 03/04/13 [Last modified: Monday, March 4, 2013 11:31pm]
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