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Motions focus on jury logistics

Published February 14, 2007


DADE CITY - Up to 500 Pasco County residents will be summoned for jury duty in April when Alfredie Steele Jr. goes on trial for murder.

Only about one-third of them are likely to show up, and then it will be a logistical challenge for the judge, attorneys and courthouse personnel involved to choose a 14-member panel to try the man accused of killing a sheriff's deputy in 2003.

The issues were raised as attorneys in the Miami trial of John Couey, accused of kidnapping, raping and murdering Jessica Lunsford, labored a second day to find an impartial jury 300 miles from where the 9-year-old was abducted from her Homosassa home.

In Dade City on Tuesday, Senior Circuit Judge Robert Beach heard a long list of motions for Steele, who sat shackled in a red jumpsuit with his public defenders, surrounded by heavy security - five deputies in the courtroom and one outside in the hallway. Two notable absences were State Attorney Bernie McCabe, who will personally prosecute Steele, and Public Defender Bob Dillinger, who will defend Steele in sentencing.

Several of the motions concerned the logistics of managing a jury in such a high-profile case.

"This case could be tried, won or lost in that jury pool room," defense attorney Bob Focht told the judge.

Prosecutors say Steele, 23, was the sniper who fired at the patrol car of Lt. Charles "Bo" Harrison outside a Trilacoochee nightclub June 1, 2003, killing the veteran deputy who was two weeks from retirement. The state is seeking the death penalty.

Beach denied a motion that would have allowed some people who are philosophically opposed to the death penalty to serve on the jury. Focht wanted to prevent their exclusion by allowing different jurors - who support the death penalty - to be picked for Steele's sentencing, should he be found guilty.

In Florida, jurors make a recommendation whether defendants should be put to death, but the final decision rests with the judge.

Beach also granted several defense motions, including imposing strict guidelines for what court employees can say to prospective jurors, making special accommodations for housing them during jury selection and questioning each person individually or in small groups about what they know of the case.

Because jury selection could take several days and require the questioning of hundreds of people, Beach also pushed the trial back one week to when no other trials are scheduled. The new start date is April 16.

Beach reserved ruling on the defense's request to sequester the jury.

The defense has not moved for a change of venue, but Focht said that request could still come.

The judge denied a handful of motions declaring parts of Florida's death penalty law unconstitutional. Those rulings were not unexpected, and Focht said he mainly raised them so they could be readdressed if the case is appealed.

But he is still worried that Steele's jury will be stacked with people who all support putting defendants to death. He cited research suggesting that jurors who support the death penalty are more likely to return a guilty verdict.

"It remains a real problem," he said.

[Last modified February 13, 2007, 23:19:23]

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