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Cooper trial’s jury selection continues

By Staff | Feb 18, 2009

It was the first day of progress, albeit slow progress, in the second murder trial of former Bonita Springs motorcycle mechanic Fred Cooper.
On Wednesday, Lee County Judge Thomas S. Reese and attorneys from both sides whittled a group of 50 potential jurors down to 32. They added another jury pool of 37 to the selection process moments before court adjourned for the day.
No jurors have been seated in the trial.
Reese said he expects a full jury box by today’s end, after another full day at a Clearwater courthouse.
“Tomorrow we will have a jury seated,” Reese said Wednesday.
Cooper, 30, is charged with two counts of first-degree murder and one count of armed burglary for the 2005 slaying of Steven and Michelle Andrews. Prosecutors said Cooper killed the Gateway couple after his longtime girlfriend began a relationship with Steven.
Cooper’s first trial, in October, ended in a mistrial when a Lee County jury failed to reach a verdict. Reese moved the second trial to St. Petersburg, citing heavy media coverage.
Jury selection for the second trial, which began Tuesday, was widely expected to move quickly given the case’s thin media profile in Pinellas County.
Yet Tuesday’s progress was lost after several jurors saw a handcuffed Cooper move through a back hallway of the St. Petersburg Judicial Building. The encounter potentially prejudiced the entire jury pool, leading to Reese’s dismissal of the group.
Wednesday’s proceedings took place in a different courthouse, the Pinellas County Criminal Justice Center in Clearwater, some 13 miles north of the St. Petersburg Judicial Building.
Cooper, dressed in a navy suit and blue tie, sat at the defense table with his attorneys, Deputy Public Defender Ken Garber and Assistant Deputy Public Defender Beatriz Taquechel.
Sitting at the prosecution table were Assistant State Attorney Anthony Kunasek and Chief Assistant State Attorney Randy McGruther.
The initial jury pool of 50 was carved out of the court’s larger pool, which was assembled for other trials scheduled that day in the Justice Center.
When potential jurors were cut from serving on the Cooper case, they had to return to the court’s jury pool in case they were needed for another case.
After excusing 12 potential jurors due to work and health conflicts, Reese and attorneys sat down with the remaining candidates in private interview sessions about the death penalty.
Jurors would be asked whether they could participate in a penalty phase that would include the option of the death penalty, Reese explained before the interviews began.
If convicted of homicide, Cooper is eligible for the death penalty. Jurors have the option of recommending Reese apply the penalty, but the judge has the final say.
“It’s very important,” Reese said of the jury’s understanding of the penalty phase. “Some people think the jury makes the ultimate and final decision.”
Six potential jurors were excused during the interview phase.
Reporters were not allowed in the conference room where jurors were questioned.
The interviews consumed most of the day, lasting from 11 a.m. to about 4:30 p.m. Reese’s earlier introduction and the initial screening of potential jurors lasted about one and a half hours in the morning.
The new jury pool introduced late Wednesday will need to undergo both phases, but ostensibly in a shorter time period.
Reese told pool members to arrive at the courtroom by 9 a.m. The 32 from the other pool will join them at 1 p.m.
Whether all 69 potential jurors will be in the same standing by that time remains to be seen.
More than a few of the 37 potential jurors in the new pool were clearly unhappy at being called back to court today. One woman’s jaw dropped, and she began to cry. Others shook their heads.
Many had spent the day waiting in the court’s jury assembly room.
One man told Reese he had a plane ticket and military orders to return to his base today.
“Bring your orders tomorrow morning,” the judge told him.
The day’s slow pace was palpable in the original jury pool. As individual interviews wore on, potential jurors waiting in the courtroom gallery closed their eyes or quietly talked among themselves.
When the final interview ended, a few began to clap.
Of the 32 remaining in the pool, 17 are women.
Court will reconvene at 9 a.m. today.

Steven Beardsley is a staff writer for the Naples Daily News.