LARGO — After about four hours of deliberating, the jurors had made a decision: Marco Antonio Parilla, Jr. would be sentenced to life in prison for killing Tarpon Springs officer Charles Kondek.
Juror Todd Stewart remembers listening to the clerk as she announced their verdict on Friday to the courtroom crowded with police officers and Kondek’s family.
As she read the final paragraph of the verdict form, shock permeated the jury box.
The clerk announced a death sentence, not life in prison.
Stewart couldn’t bring himself to look at the Kondek family, who wanted the death penalty for Parilla, as the courtroom erupted in cheers.
"I was completely horrified," said Stewart. "It just completely blew me away. It was like a nightmare. I couldn’t imagine that happening to that family. They had already gone through so much."
Also in the jury box was Jonathan Morales, who grew nauseous as he realized the mistake.
"The feeling of seeing the family get that justice taken away from them and the false verdict, it was really hard to see," he said. "It was just really unfortunate to put the family through that, to put all parties through that."
After noticing the error, Pinellas Circuit judge Joseph Bulone instructed the jurors to fill out a new form. This time, it read life in prison.
The Tampa Bay Times obtained a copy of the three-page verdict form. This is what went wrong:
In the last section, jurors have to check either yes or no for this statement: "We the jury unanimously find that Marco Parilla should be sentenced to death."
They checked "yes."
But below that is another sentence that instructs the jury to write down their total votes if they checked "no." The jury foreman filled in the blanks with two for life and 10 for death.
It’s unclear what exactly led to the error. Most jurors did not return a reporter’s calls or declined to comment. Stewart, who voted for death, said he didn’t see the form after it was filled out because he was on the other side of the room during deliberations.
Morales, who declined to talk about his vote, said the foreman was the only juror who handled the form.
"He would read all the questions to us, and we raised our hands to vote and that was it," Morales said. "None of us really examined the paper. None of us really looked at it. I guess we trusted that he would read everything right."
This is what Morales remembers: the foreman read the final question that later led to the confusion in court. One juror, he said, "asked him to repeat the question twice and if he was sure that that question didn’t imply that we unanimously sentenced him to death."
It wasn’t until after the jury filled out the new form that Morales read the question himself.
"It was perfectly clear to me," he said. "I understood the question. There was no second guessing."
For Chief Assistant State Attorney Bruce Bartlett and defense attorney Bjorn Brunvand, this is the first time they’ve seen a wrong sentence announced in a capital case.
"For a fleeting moment, you kind of go ‘wow,’ maybe we did do something right here," Bartlett said. "And then a minute and a half later, it’s all taken away. And now there are tears. Not tears of joy, but tears of sorrow."
After Florida lawmakers revised the state’s laws last year to require unanimous juries in death penalty cases, only about four capital cases have gone to trial in the Pinellas-Pasco circuit.
Bartlett suspects the new verdict form isn’t clear enough for jurors.
"It confused these 12 people," he said, referring to the jury. "I’m quite confident you’re going to see more of it the way that’s laid out."
Brunvand said he believes some of the jurors may not have understood the meaning of "unanimous."
"You would think unanimous is pretty self-explanatory, but maybe it’s not," he said. "If there’s genuine misunderstanding about what unanimous means, you would think that wouldn’t exist with 12 jurors. At least one of them would say, wait a minute, this isn’t unanimous."
The jury’s decision wasn’t what the Kondek family hoped for. Shortly after the verdict, Kondek’s widow, Teresa, said the mishap "devastated" her family.
Parilla shot and killed Kondek, a 17-year veteran, while he was responding to a noise complaint on Dec. 21, 2014.
Bartlett said he grew hopeful that the jury was considering death after deliberations reached two hours.
But a life sentence has its advantages in some cases. It takes years for a death penalty case to wind through the appeals process, Bartlett said, causing victim’s families to relive the moments of their loved one’s death.
"It’s just never over and they get notice on every single little thing that’s going to happen," he said. "The family needed to say, this is behind me, and get on with their lives."
Times senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Laura C. Morel at [email protected] Follow @lauracmorel.