CLEARWATER — As potential jurors waited outside the courtroom in Pinellas County Tuesday, they talked openly about Casey Anthony, the defendant they expected to see once they entered, according to one of the would-be jurors who was "appalled" that so much "chit-chat" about the case was permitted.
"Nobody was told we were not supposed to be talking," said Lynda Saracino, juror number 2059, who explained that the discussion and speculation about the case went on before the potential jurors entered the courtroom and in front of deputies handling the group.
One woman, especially, made it known to the others that she would not be selected for the jury because she was also involved in the search for Caylee Anthony back in 2008, Saracino said.
After word of that woman's discussions with others surfaced and after many of the 49 remaining jurors indicated they had talked about the case before being brought up to the courtroom, Orange-Osceola Chief Judge Belvin Perry said he had no choice but to "eliminate" the entire pool.
"Stranger things have happened," Perry said.
The situation was described Tuesday by court officials as a "fluke" — the idea that in a county of more than one million people a potential witness in the case from Orlando would also get called as a potential juror.
"The odds of something like that are incalculable, I would figure," said Ron Stuart, a public information officer for the 6th Judicial Circuit Courts in Pinellas and Pasco counties.
Ninth Judicial Circuit court administration spokeswoman Karen Levey said Perry dispatched the jurors "out of an abundance of caution."
But Saracino insisted Tuesday that the other woman's comments — and those of other potential jurors — could have been avoided by simply telling prospective jurors not to discuss any case while waiting to be called into the courtroom.
"Tell each juror you may not discuss any potential case with anyone," said Saracino, a recent law school graduate, who figured she would not be ultimately chosen as a juror because of her legal background.
"I was a tad appalled at the lack of instruction," she said. "I heard at least 10 comments from different mouths [about the case]. If people had been instructed, 'Do not discuss anything to do with any case,' then all 49 of us may have been potential jurors. It was like an afternoon of waste."
Even after the 49 jurors left the courtroom, but before they were formally dismissed, they continued to chat about the case, said Saracino, who was so bothered she felt compelled to write a letter to the Clerk of Courts for Pinellas describing the situation.
Hard to seat a jury
problems with the jurors Tuesday underscored the difficulties seating a jury for such a high-profile case. Perry has taken measures to minimize the potential jurors' exposure to the case, but that task is proving difficult in a case that has captured statewide and national attention.
Casey Anthony, 25, is charged with first-degree murder in the 2008 death of her 2-year-old daughter Caylee Marie. If she is convicted as charged, she faces a possible death sentence.
By mid-day Tuesday, Perry and the prosecution and defense had questioned about 109 potential jurors. About 36 or 38 are still viable and may be called back for a second round of questioning, Levey said. The remainder of the 109 were excused for hardship reasons.
The additional 50 dismissed Tuesday were expected to be added to the count. Now, another 50 will be called as early as possible Wednesday morning, and Perry ordered additional security to watch over the pool.
Stuart said there normally are not deputies or clerk staffers monitoring the conversations of potential jurors as they wait in the jury assembly room. And he was unsure whether they are specifically told not to engage in conversations about judicial matters.
Levey said Perry is hoping to get a pool of 50 potential jurors beyond the hardship, pre-trial publicity and death penalty qualification questions, so that the attorneys for both sides can direct more specific questions to that panel, which is standard size in a death penalty case. Levey said Perry would ultimately like the jury to come from that group.
Perry indicated that with Tuesday's unexpected developments, the selection process may run into Friday or Saturday — and perhaps even Monday. He is "committed" to seating a jury here in Pinellas, Levey said.
But like most things in this case, jury selection is getting more complicated as the week progresses.
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