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Noisy rehab rattles courthouse routine

The $7-million renovation of the east-side facility has at times affected courtroom proceedings.

By CHASE SQUIRES

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 14, 2001


DADE CITY -- Jurors and jackhammers have made for a strange spring at the Pasco County courthouse.

Ever since construction began in earnest in March on the county's $7-million courthouse renovation, employees, judges, visitors and jurors have seen a dramatic change in their daily patterns.

Part of the building has been stripped to the metal girders. Walls have been ripped out. The courtyard has been reduced to rubble, and construction trailers fill the east end of the courthouse parking lot.

It's inconvenient, county officials say, but it's necessary.

The work has been so prevalent, it has started to affect courtroom proceedings.

During an April murder trial, with the accused facing the death penalty, fire alarms went off repeatedly and a jackhammer outside rattled the walls.

In another murder trial this month, the lights shut off unexpectedly, plunging the windowless courtroom into complete darkness. A juror complained she was frightened by having to walk a gantlet of witnesses who lined the narrow hallway outside the courtroom.

And with the small courthouse effectively shrunk even further by construction, witnesses, victims' and suspects' families, attorneys, reporters, jurors and people awaiting domestic violence hearings, traffic court and juvenile trials are packed together.

The situation got so bad this month during the murder trial of Lawrence Joey Smith, 23, Circuit Judge Maynard Swanson had jurors escorted from the courtroom each day through restricted hallways and out a back door. He said he couldn't remember ever doing that before.

Prosecutors have taken to warning potential jurors that they will have to work through distractions such as power outages and noise.

In Smith's trial, Swanson took the extra step of keeping the families of Smith and his victims apart by having one side remain in the courtroom while the other left. He ordered everyone -- witnesses and families -- to leave the courthouse grounds immediately after they were dismissed.

"There's no question it changed the way we conducted the trial," the judge said.

Swanson said he still believes fair trials can be held, despite the noise and the cramped quarters, but he acknowledges it makes his job tougher.

And looking ahead, Swanson wonders what might happen this summer, when the high-profile Kristina Gaime case is scheduled to go to trial.

Gaime, who is accused of killing one son and trying to kill another in the family minivan, has generated intense media attention.

Having television crews from four local affiliates as well as national cable outlets competing for space with newspaper reporters and photographers may create problems, he said.

"I don't know where we're going to put them," Swanson said.

Swanson said construction crews have been working with him, delaying some work closest to the courtroom when asked. And Swanson said he has moved his proceedings to another, more remote, courtroom when possible.

Despite the difficulties, Swanson said, he does not expect to move any trials out of the courthouse.

County construction director Dennis Lemons said work on the 18-month project is on schedule. The courthouse is expected to be refurbished by July 2002, with a fourth courtroom added to the building, more space in the hallways, a more secure entrance and a new courtyard.

And as Assistant County Administrator Dan Johnson said, judges at the west-side justice center in Port Richey went through the same thing in the 1990s.

The good news, Lemons said, is that when the project is complete, the Dade City courthouse should be able to go another 15 or 20 years without any more work.

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