Andrew Coffee Jr., a man accused of attempted murder of a law-enforcement officer, sat quietly in a maroon shirt and tie Monday as jury selection for his high-profile trial began in an Indian River County courtroom.
One by one prospective jurors came into the third-floor gallery to discuss what they had heard about the case. Many had read about the charges in the newspaper or seen it on TV. Several had seen online dashboard camera footage from the December 2015 traffic stop and shootout.
In the video, Coffee, Jr. is seen arguing with an Indian River County Sheriff’s Office deputy during an early-morning traffic stop. Records state he had been pulled over by Deputy Chris Lester while driving a scooter without proper tags. Conversation between the two quickly escalates and when the officer tells Coffee Jr. to put his hands on the vehicle, Coffee Jr. pivots in a flash and slugs the deputy in the face, knocking him down.
The officer then falls out of the frame of the camera, but Coffee Jr. is seen reaching for something near his belt in the back of his pants. Both men then disappear from the camera’s viewpoint and there are several gun shots before the officer reenters the frame, limping.
Lester told police after he saw Coffee Jr. had a firearm, he began to shoot, according to arrest documents. Coffee Jr. then took cover by a light pole, the deputy said. Lester estimated he fired five rounds from his county-issued weapon before falling down.
Both men suffered non-life-threatening injuries. Coffee Jr. was later apprehended hiding in a pile of wood pallets just south of 45th Street and East of Old Dixie Highway.
The defendant, who is facing trial for three felonies – attempted murder of a law enforcement officer, battery on a law enforcement officer and possession of a firearm by a felon – buried his head in his hands as one prospective juror confused his case with his son’s and grandson’s. Those two were involved in a high-profile drug raid in March that resulted in another police shootout and a young woman’s death.
The 54-year-old looked away when a prospective juror discussed his high regard for law enforcement. He dropped his head toward the defense table with exasperation after one man said Coffee Jr. was called to the courtroom for a reason, indicating someone had done something criminal.
But what if this is the wrong guy, argued Chief Assistant State Attorney Tom Bakkedahl. Could you still be an impartial juror?
Before being dismissed, the man replied, “I don’t know.”
As the attorneys for each side debated each prospective juror’s merits, they disagreed over how to proceed. “They are all going to see the video soon enough,” Bakkedahl said, arguing that just because someone had watched the footage online didn’t mean they couldn’t be impartial.
Assistant Public Defender Alan Hunt said otherwise. News reports have detailed Coffee Jr.’s criminal history and previous convictions, he said. “Anybody hearing that video is going to form an opinion.”
In the days leading up to the trial, attorneys for the defendant pleaded with Judge Cynthia Cox to ensure proceedings will be fair. They fought to keep the sheriff and his representatives from addressing the jury pool as is custom in the Nineteenth Circuit. They argued to limit the number of uniformed officers in the courtroom so as not to influence the jury and moved to suppress a reenactment video made by a detective to use as a visual aid during his testimony.
“The defendant has a right to a fair and impartial trial,” argued Assistant Public Defender Michelle Rhodeback during the pretrial hearing. “Officers in uniform would send a nonverbal message to the jury.”
She also told the judge that the reenactment video made by Detective David Rodriguez isn’t a true depiction of what happened. The reenactment is done during the daylight – even though the alleged crime took place around 2:30 a.m., she explained. It makes it look like the shooter stopped, planned an attack and hunted the officer down.
The reality is everything happened very fast, Rhodeback said. There were sirens and lights, none of which appears in the recreation. “We already have actual video from the scene, we don’t believe that we need these other animations of how the shots may have been fired,” she said.
The prosecution fought to keep the visual aid in trial. Bakkedahl told the judge at the Oct. 23 hearing that this type of reenactment is common. A shooting reconstruction, or flight path analysis, can show where the incident occurred, the location of physical evidence and bullet marks, he said.
The fact that other video tape exists doesn’t detract from the importance of this animation and its ability to help the officer give his account, said Bakkedahl.
He reminded the judge that this was a case involving first-degree attempted murder on a law-enforcement officer. “That means I have to prove premeditation and the fact that he is shooting at a fleeing officer. I think [the demonstrative aid] is kind of relevant.”
The prosecutor agreed that it would be prudent to limit the number of uniformed officers allowed in the courtroom, but noted such a ruling would be hard to manage.
In orders filed last week Cox approved the defense’s request to suppress the reenactment video and limited the number of uniformed officers in the courtroom to seven.
Monday, she was still striving to create a fair atmosphere for the high-profile case. Shortly before breaking for lunch, she asked the prospective jurors to look at Coffee Jr. and another defendant awaiting justice. She inquired whether any would have trouble presuming their innocence. Several people raised their hands.