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'Band-Aid Bandit' judge moves at his own pace

In his court, picking a jury is more than a chore to endure.

By CARRIE WEIMAR
Published April 3, 2007


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TAMPA - To most judges, the business of picking a jury is a chore best performed quickly to get on with the substance of a trial.

Most judges aren't Steven D. Merryday.

Merryday, 56, is the Tampa federal judge presiding over the Band-Aid Bandit trial, which began Monday. In his courtroom, jury selection is an extensive dialogue that may take hours, even days, to complete.

Merryday isn't satisfied simply knowing where prospective jurors live. He wants to know where they were born, where they went to college and a complete work history.

The answers usually lead to meandering discussions about favorite sports teams, school allegiances, even marital history.

For example, a potential juror in a recent criminal case with a long, white beard prompted Merryday to ask, "Excuse me, sir, but have you ever had the occasion to play Santa Claus?"

The juror had, and a lengthy conversation ensued.

When Merryday learned another man was from Chicago, he immediately asked, "White Sox or Cubs?"

The purpose of the questioning, known as voir dire, is to find unbiased jurors. In federal court, unlike state court, the judge does most interviews, although attorneys may ask a question or two.

Jurors enjoy Merryday's attention and laugh appreciatively at the judge's quips. Merryday, who politely declined to be interviewed, appears to relish his interaction with nonlawyers.

But his discussions are time consuming, especially when 30 or more people are in the jury pool. Some courtroom personnel call it the "Merryday marathon." Others have dubbed him "All-Day Merryday."

During jury selection Monday, Merryday defended his deliberate style.

"Our primary objective is not to get it fast. It's to get it right," Merryday said. "If I have to sacrifice a little speed for care, that's what I'll do."

High-profile cases not unusual for this judge

Merryday was appointed to the federal bench in 1992. In his 15 years as a U.S. district judge, he has presided over some of the region's most notable cases.

In 2000, he oversaw a settlement that brought an end to court-ordered busing for desegregation in Pinellas County and phased in a controversial school choice plan.

In 2003, Merryday ordered $2.87-million in restitution for Steve and Marlene Aisenberg, the couple once charged with lying about the disappearance of their infant daughter.

More recently, Merryday presided over the trial of Scott Schweickert, the Illinois man convicted of helping drug and rape two Tampa men who were later found dead.

Friends and colleagues say Merryday's friendly demeanor is a product of his small-town upbringing in rural Palatka.

"When he talks to a jury and sounds like a normal, regular guy, it's because he is," said Bill Jung, a Tampa lawyer and former federal prosecutor.

But the aw-shucks charm masks a fierce legal mind, they say.

"He's one of a kind," said Merryday's former law partner, Ron Russo. "He's a tremendous writer and a tremendous thinker."

Merryday attended the University of Florida, where he graduated with honors and was a Rhodes scholar finalist. In his last year at UF law school, he was student body president.

He is still a loyal Gator fan, and a statue of an alligator sits outside his 15th-floor courtroom.

Merryday's highest-profile misstep since his appointment came in 1994, when he was charged with driving under the influence outside Palatka.

But he won kudos for his handling of the incident, not disclosing his status as a federal judge to arresting officers, issuing a prompt apology and promising to avoid alcohol in the future.

'You cheer for the football team?'

For the next three weeks, Merryday will preside over the trial of Rafael Rondon, nicknamed the Band-Aid Bandit by police, and the man accused of being his accomplice, Emeregildo Roman.

The pair are accused of robbing 39 banks in the Tampa Bay area over the past six years.

Jury selection began as usual at 10:30 a.m. Monday, with a 20-minute speech from Merryday in which he discussed the federal court structure, the geography of the Middle District of Florida, the history of the judicial system and the role of the jury.

Then, the questions began. Along with the expected, such as whether they'd heard of the case or worked at a bank, Merryday found other topics to discuss.

After learning one young man attended Florida State University, Merryday asked, "You cheer for the football team there?"

When he said yes, Merryday answered, "Well, it's forgivable."

When another woman said she and her husband ran a real estate school, Merryday not only wanted to know the number of students, but whether they employed teachers and how many.

At 4:30 p.m., after interviewing 37 potential jurors, Merryday decided the pool was large enough and called the lawyers into his chambers to select a jury.

By 5 p.m., they had selected the 11 men and five women who will serve as the 12 jurors and four alternates.

In all, it took 7 1/2 hours, including an hour and 15-minute break for lunch.

Not quite all day. But almost.

Times staff writer Thomas C. Tobin contributed to this report. Carrie Weimar can be reached at 813 226-3416 or cweimar@sptimes.com.

Fast Facts:

 

U.S. District Judge Steven D. Merryday

- Born in Palatka, Fla.

- Attended the University of Florida for undergraduate and law school.

- Began his law career at Holland & Knight in Tampa. Was partner in the firm of Glenn, Rasmussen, Fogarty, Merryday and Russo.

- Appointed to the U.S. District Court bench in 1992.

- Notable cases include: Pinellas County schools desegregation, Aisenbergs, Scott Schweickert and Ronald Mays.

 

[Last modified April 2, 2007, 23:08:28]


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