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Court expects to seat jury in Cooper’s trial today

By Staff | Feb 19, 2009

A full jury box proved elusive for the third day in Fred Cooper’s murder trial, but the 14 jurors might be found and seated this morning.
Opening statements would then begin in the afternoon.
After a long day of jury selection Thursday, the court enters today with a field of 61 candidates from which to seat 14 jurors, two of them alternates.
The trial will return to the St. Petersburg Judicial Building, the setting for the remainder of the proceedings.
The court needed most of Thursday to cull potential jurors from a pool of 37 that reported that morning to the Pinellas County Criminal Justice Center in Clearwater. The selection process was the same as the day before, when a separate pool of 50 was pared to 32.
Both pools were combined late Thursday, for a total 48 potential jurors who were immediately available. Two were later excused.
Another pool of 15 will be on hand at the Judicial Building today as backup.
Pool members were questioned about their biases, their ability to be objective and their knowledge of the case.
In individual interviews held in a side room, they were questioned about their opinions on the death penalty and whether they could advise a penalty of death, should Cooper be convicted.
Cooper, 30, a former motorcycle mechanic in Bonita Springs, is charged with two first-degree counts of homicide and one count of armed burglary in the deaths of Gateway couple Steven and Michelle Andrews, who were found slain in their bedroom in December 2005.
If convicted, Cooper is eligible for the death penalty.
His first trial, in October, ended when a Lee County jury failed to reach a verdict.
Judge Thomas S. Reese moved Cooper’s second trial to St. Petersburg in response to heavy media coverage.
Cooper sat beside his defense attorneys Tuesday, joined them each time they went to the bench and was present at the individual interviews. He was dressed in a dark coat and brown tie, and he appeared to say little. When Reese introduced him to the jury pool, Cooper stood for a moment and then sat down again.
The final round of selection began late Thursday, when Chief Assistant State Attorney Randy McGruther began the prosecution’s line of questioning before the group of 48. His questions touched on several components of the prosecutors’ case — infidelity and DNA evidence, among others.
Prosecutors say Cooper killed the Andrewses after he discovered his longtime girlfriend, Kellie Ballew, had entered a relationship with the married Steven.
“You may hear — in fact, you will hear — that one of the victims had a sexual relationship with Mr. Cooper’s girlfriend,” he told potential jurors. “Does anyone feel that justifies an act of murder?”
None in the pool spoke or raised their hands.
McGruther asked if anyone expected DNA evidence to be as ubiquitous and traceable as popular TV shows suggested.
“It’s like they have you believe that your DNA is like an aura that you have around you,” he said. “Does anyone believe that?”
No one said they did.
DNA tests from two pieces of evidence removed from the Andrewses’ bedroom suggested Cooper might be a contributor, but Steven was not excluded.
Jurors in Cooper’s first trial largely dismissed the results, some later said.
McGruther also reached back to Cooper’s first trial when he asked pool members if they could get along with one another and work closely. He asked if any were claustrophobic.
Jurors from the October trial described tense, almost hostile, deliberations. One woman was claustrophobic, and at one point, she left the jury room in tears.
Several fellow jurors described her as an impediment to deliberations.
In response to McGruther’s question, one man in the pool said he had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which made him claustrophobic, antisocial and sensitive to graphic photos.
He was excused moments later.
Another juror, a single mother, was excused when she said she had to pick up her child from day care every day at 6 p.m.
Today Cooper’s defense team will ask questions of the jury pool, and attorneys will then begin to remove jurors from the pool. Both sides can remove 10 jurors without giving a cause.
Reese’s urgency to seat a jury was evident in his early morning questions before the panel of 37. Instead of asking if potential jurors had work conflicts — the most common reason for a juror to be excused — he asked if they had any “emergency situations” that would prevent them from serving.
Only three approached the bench.
He also said he expects the trial to end by Friday. During the past two days of jury selection, he has said the trial would last two weeks.
The tailored questions resulted in only four juror removals during group questioning. But those who wanted to leave may have found another way — 14 were dismissed during the individual questioning on the death penalty.
Reporters were not allowed to be present during those interviews.
Thursday was the third day of Cooper’s trial and the third of jury selection.
On Tuesday, Reese dismissed an entire jury pool after several members saw a handcuffed Cooper walking through a back hallway of the Judicial Building, a potentially prejudicial encounter.
Wednesday’s and Thursday’s proceedings were held at the Justice Center in Clearwater, a move that enabled the court to access potential jurors arriving at the building each day.
Court reconvenes at 9 a.m. today at the Judicial Building in downtown St. Petersburg.

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