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Elevator mishap extends jury selection in Gateway killings

By Staff | Feb 17, 2009

So much for a quick jury selection.
The start of Fred Cooper’s second trial in the double homicide of a Gateway couple was supposed to move smoothly in St. Petersburg, far away from the Lee County media thicket.
Instead, the court lost a full day when the possibility of a tainted jury pool moved Judge Thomas S. Reese to dismiss the pool, three hours into the selection process.
No jurors had been selected.
The process will begin anew today in a new setting, the Pinellas County Criminal Justice Center, in Clearwater, where a new jury pool will be assembled from those in other cases. Nancy Walent, the jury manager for the court, said she expects to gather a pool of 65 jurors. Those who are cut will return to their original pools.
On Thursday, the trial will return to St. Petersburg. If a full jury has not been selected, the court can take from a pool of about 120 potential jurors scheduled to be at the court, Walent said.
The full trial will be held in St. Petersburg.
“That sounds like a plan,” Reese said after long discussions on the matter.
Cooper, 30, is charged with two counts of first-degree homicide and one count of armed burglary in the killings of Steven and Michelle Andrews in December 2005.
Prosecutors say Cooper was jealous of an affair between his longtime girlfriend and Steven Andrews. His first trial, in October, ended when a Lee County jury failed to reach a verdict.
Tuesday’s setback came when potential jurors saw Cooper in handcuffs, said Sgt. James Bordner, spokesman for the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office.
Near the end of a late morning recess, Pinellas County deputies were escorting Cooper from his holding cell down the hall to the courtroom when a nearby elevator door opened. Inside were several potential jurors, all moving from the lobby back to the courtroom, where they were being questioned for jury selection.
The door — one of two on opposite sides of the elevator — was supposed to be locked down from the public.
The encounter could be considered prejudicial for potential jurors. Cooper’s attorney, Ken Garber, moved for the entire pool’s dismissal. More than 100 potential jurors comprised the pool.
“I guess what I’m worried about is they go downstairs to the (remaining panel), somebody discusses it,” he said. “I just feel I can’t take that chance.”
The potential jurors in the elevator were those remaining from the first 70 brought into the courtroom earlier that morning for jury selection. More potential jurors were downstairs on the third floor, and another group was scheduled to be brought into the courtroom to replace the excused.
Walent, the jury manager, said she did not think the jurors in the elevator had much time to talk to other jurors on the third floor.
But no one could be sure, Garber said.
David A. Brener, a Fort Myers criminal defense attorney, said such encounters endanger a defendant’s right to be portrayed as innocent, part of the judicial system’s basic presumption of innocence.
“And that presumption requires that the defendant not be portrayed in a way that implies he’s guilty, or worse, implies he’s a dangerous man who deserves to be restrained,” he said.
Cooper, dressed in a blue jacket, grey shirt and green tie, showed little emotion throughout the day. He stood with his attorneys at the judge’s bench during jury selection, hands in his pockets.
Even before the mishap, jury selection moved at a crawl. Over two hours, 29 potential jurors were excused for issues that would conflict with the trial, which is expected to last two to three weeks.
Four people were released for health reasons. The others named a variety of work-related or childcare concerns. Most who asked to be excused approached the bench, and the subsequent discussions with Reese and attorneys from both parties were often inaudible.
Those that could be heard often included economic reasons. One man, who wore a maroon T-shirt and jeans, said his family could not afford for him to be away from work.
“We make two car payments,” he said. “We just can’t deal with two weeks here.”
Reese acknowledged the economic climate is slowing the selection process.
“In this economy I can’t help but be sympathetic to people,” he was overheard telling attorneys at the bench.
Jury selection will begin again today at 9:20 a.m.

Steven Beardsley is a staff writer for the Naples Daily News. Contact sbeardsley@naplesnews.com.