Robert Dunn, accused of killing his estranged wife in a 2008 Cape Coral day care shooting, appeared in court Oct. 15 in Fort Myers for a pre-trial hearing. / Sarah Coward/news-press.com
The wheels of justice continue to turn slowly in the case against Robert Dunn, accused of fatally shooting his estranged wife at a Cape Coral day care nearly five years ago.
Today marks four weeks since jury selection began. In that time, prosecutors and defense attorneys have called 440 potential jurors, a number described by local lawyers as unusually high.
The two main issues causing delays are pretrial publicity and views on the death penalty, which Dunn faces. Jurors also are being interviewed individually in the judge’s chambers to prevent their statements on both topics from influencing other members of the panel.
The crime and court proceedings have been heavily covered by local media — presenting the opportunity for many potential jurors to develop opinions on the case — while opposition to the death penalty commonly rears its head in capital cases, said Ray LeGrande, an attorney with Fort Myers firm LeGrande & LeGrande. He is not involved in the Dunn case.
Some potential jurors are also more sensitive to crimes against children, LeGrande said.
In this case, Dunn is charged with child abuse — in addition to first-degree murder and armed burglary — because witnesses say he shot his wife, Christine Lozier-Dunn, 36, in front of several children, including his 2-year-old daughter, Allyson.
Dunn has pleaded not guilty to the Jan. 25, 2008, slaying. He has been in jail ever since, while his daughter has been in the care of Lozier-Dunn’s parents.
LeGrande said he experienced issues with potential jurors when he represented Justin Grodin, convicted in 2009 of killing his 11-month-old daughter, Gretchen, before stuffing her body in a duffel bag and burying her in south Fort Myers.
“There were a very high number of individuals that expressed that they could not, you know, render a fair assessment where children were involved,” he said. “They were emotionally affected by that.”
In that case, he remembers going though about 100 potential jurors. The range has typically been between 75 and 200, he said.
In another highly publicized case, involving Kemar Johnston and members of the Cash Feenz rap group, about 200 potential jurors were interviewed.
Johnston was accused in the 2006 beating, torture, killing and burning of Alexis Sosa, 18, and his nephew Jeffrey Sosa, 14.
Joe Viacava, an attorney with The Wilbur Smith Law Firm, said everyone is on their best behavior in a capital case because they’re looking to the “eye in the sky,” the appeals court.
“The appeals are just unbelievable,” Viacava said. “You have to be meticulous, because it’s going to be appealed.”
Because of the extra scrutiny, judges also are more willing to side with the defense to avoid potential grounds for appeal.
“You can make objections in a death penalty case that you’ll never get in a regular case, and they’ll be sustained,” he said.
Another hurdle to seating a jury in cases of this nature is the time element. When there’s a possibility a trial could drag on for several weeks, people naturally try to avoid being selected, he said.
In addition to the trial, if Dunn is convicted, jurors would also have to sit through a penalty phase to determine whether he should receive life in prison or a death sentence, which could last several days.
The jury selection process is expected to start again today after taking off Monday to observe Veterans Day. A total of 64 potential jurors, or less than 15 percent of those interviewed so far, are slated to be questioned as a group in hopes of selecting 12 jurors and three alternates.