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Mistrial in triple murder sets off courtroom fracas

Polk County sheriff bailiffs Beverly McCall, left, and Tony Goss, center left, restrain Richard Bustamante as Ebelia Rodriguez yells at defendant Leon Davis at the Polk County Courthouse on Thursday. Video of the uproar after the mistrial is at links.tampabay.com

MICHAEL WILSON | The Ledger

Polk County sheriff bailiffs Beverly McCall, left, and Tony Goss, center left, restrain Richard Bustamante as Ebelia Rodriguez yells at defendant Leon Davis at the Polk County Courthouse on Thursday. Video of the uproar after the mistrial is at links.tampabay.com

BARTOW — Circuit Judge J. Michael Hunter declared a mistrial in the triple-murder case against Leon Davis Jr. on Thursday, causing one victim's father to jump the courtroom railing and lunge at the defendant.

Bailiffs restrained Richard Bustamante, but not until he got within a foot of Davis.

Moments after the jury filed out of the courtroom, Bustamante's wife, Ebelia Rodriguez, shouted to Davis, "You know you did this. You are guilty."

She hurled her purse at him, striking defense co-counsel Andrea Norgard, and also started to climb over a bench toward the defendant.

Bailiffs cleared the courtroom.

Rodriguez's anger spilled into the foyer outside the courtroom door, even as her sister tried to calm her.

"He killed my daughter," she cried. "We all know he's guilty."

Hunter declared a mistrial because of an emergency medical technician's testimony.

Ernest Froehlich, a 20-year veteran of Polk County's Emergency Medical Services, testified he heard an officer ask Yvonne Bustamante at the scene who had set her afire.

"She raised up on the stretcher and emphatically stated, 'Leon Davis,' without any doubt in her mind," Froehlich testified.

Hunter said Froehlich's comment speculating about Bustamante's state of mind went directly to her credibility, and that demands a mistrial.

"It's almost as if he put his stamp of approval on her identification," the judge said. "It's improper for one witness to bolster or touch on the credibility of another witness. That is one bell I can't unring."

He reset the trial for Jan. 3.

Davis, 32, is charged with killing Yvonne Bustamante, 26, and her pregnant sister-in-law, Juanita Luciano, 23, at a Lake Wales insurance agency.

Authorities allege that Davis came into the Headley Nationwide Insurance agency, where the women worked, to rob them. He found $148, then forced the women into a bathroom, bound them in duct tape, doused them in gasoline and set them on fire.

Both women later died, as did Luciano's newborn son, who was delivered prematurely that night and died three days later.

Davis faces three counts of first-degree murder, along with armed robbery, first-degree arson and attempted first-degree murder. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.

He is also charged with first-degree murder in the unrelated killings of two convenience store clerks near Lake Alfred on Dec. 6, a week before the Lake Wales attacks.

That case is scheduled for trial in February. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty in that case, too.

Mistrial in triple murder sets off courtroom fracas 10/28/10 [Last modified: Friday, October 29, 2010 1:14am]

    

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