tampabay.com

Jury in Steele trial is chosen

By MOLLY MOORHEAD
Published April 21, 2007


DADE CITY - Ten women and two men will serve as jurors in the first-degree murder trial of Alfredie Steele Jr.

Opening arguments are scheduled to begin Monday.

Steele, 23, is accused of killing Pasco sheriff's Lt. Charles "Bo" Harrison in a sniper-style shooting on June 1, 2003, while Harrison sat in his parked sheriff's cruiser outside a Trilacoochee nightclub. He was the first law enforcement officer killed on duty in the county in more than 80 years, and his death drew intense publicity.

Steele faces the death penalty if convicted.

Dozens of jurors were released earlier this week because they already knew too much about the case and in some cases were already convinced of Steele's guilt.

The 12-member panel, plus three alternates, wasn't set until Friday evening.

Jurors endured numerous rounds of questioning during the week, assuring attorneys they could presume Steele innocent, hold the state to its high burden of proof and be fair and impartial. Their occupations run the spectrum: school bus driver, bookkeeper, nurse. There are no African-Americans on the jury. Both Steele and Harrison are black.

One factor stands out about this jury: women are the clear majority.

Tampa defense attorney Lyann Goudie said gender is a factor in a jury's composition like any other, such as race, class, religion and education. There is a stereotype of female juries, she said, and when Goudie was a prosecutor, she said sometimes female-dominated juries acted to that stereotype.

"I think the perception is that they're going to be more emotional," she said. "I think the stereotype is that they're going to be more anti-death penalty."

She added: "The stereotype favors the defense. Not for an acquittal, of course, but to listen to the reasons why they should be for a less-harsh sentence."

According to prosecutors, Steele was reeling from the deaths of several friends when he took an SKS rifle into the woods to shoot late on May 31, 2003. Then, they say, he got drunk at Rumors nightclub. When he left, he spotted a sheriff's cruiser parked across the highway, fired at the back of it and ran; two bullets pierced the trunk and struck Harrison in the back.

The state's case is slim on physical evidence. The rifle Steele is accused of using has never been found. But prosecutors could play for the jury any of three recorded statements he gave the day of his arrest.

In an early-morning meeting with detectives June 3, Steele admitted to firing the rifle after spotting the patrol car. Later, his cousin Nathaniel Vanzant taped him apologizing through sobs to Harrison's family. In a final police interview, Steele admitted he shot at the car but said he didn't mean to kill Harrison.

His attorneys have not said what, if any, defense they plan to put on. But their questions surveyed jurors' feelings on different elements of the case, including gun ownership, underage drinking and a defendant's right to testify or not.

Assistant public defender Bob Focht, who handled jury selection for the defense, said late Friday he was satisfied with the panel but said the process is highly subjective.

"This is like picking between people who wear argyle socks," he said.

His best example: One of the potential jurors Focht excused walked out of the courtroom Friday afternoon and as he passed the defense table, looked at Steele and said "Good luck."

Times staff writer Jamal Thalji contributed to this report. Molly Moorhead can be reached at 352 521-6521 or moorhead@sptimes.com.