TAMPA — Appeals judges sounded skeptical Tuesday of claims that Hillsborough sheriff's detectives properly interrogated accused killer David Lee Onstott despite his repeated requests for an attorney.
A year has passed since Hillsborough Circuit Judge Ronald Ficarrotta gutted a key part of the state's first-degree murder case against Onstott by throwing out his confession to killing 13-year-old Sarah Lunde in April 2005.
Ficarrotta found that detectives ignored Onstott's clear and unequivocal requests for an attorney before the suspect made self-incriminating statements.
Tuesday, attorneys for the state and defense challenged aspects of the judge's ruling during oral arguments before the 2nd District Court of Appeal.
The appellate court's decision is critical for prosecutors, who have no physical or forensic evidence tying Onstott to the homicide.
Assistant Attorney General John M. Klawikofsky said Onstott, 39, twice signed waivers clearing the way for investigators to question him about Lunde's disappearance without an attorney present. But he didn't say anything incriminating.
Then, on April 14, 2005, Onstott said his attorney told him not to sign any more forms waiving his Miranda rights. Klawikofsky conceded that Onstott didn't want to put anything in writing but said the suspect had remained willing to talk with detectives.
"You can't force a lawyer on somebody," the attorney said.
The appeals judges didn't seem convinced.
"We know he wasn't talking about a form asking what he wanted for lunch the next day," 2nd DCA Chief Judge Stevan T. Northcutt said. "How is that not a clear invocation of a right to counsel?"
Onstott's attorney asked the appeals panel to go even further than the trial judge did.
Ficarrotta ruled that prosecutors could introduce statements Onstott made while in custody to his mother, a jail nurse and a detention deputy after authorities found Lunde's partly clothed body in an abandoned fish farm April 16, 2005.
But Assistant Public Defender John Skye argued that everything his client said after his failed requests for an attorney was tainted and should be thrown out before trial.
That includes Onstott telling a detective during a smoke break that he wanted to die. Ficarrotta said that statement should be admitted because it was made spontaneously after the interrogation was over.
It was the same detective who had just spent hours interrogating Onstott.
"The suggestion that that is somehow spontaneous makes a mockery of Miranda," Skye said.
Though the appeals judges — Northcutt, Charles A. Davis Jr. and Walt Logan — asked the most pointed questions of the assistant attorney general, their true feelings won't be known until they issue a ruling. That could take weeks or months.
Lunde's mother, Kelly May, attended Tuesday's proceedings. As the third anniversary of her daughter's death approaches, she didn't indicate any impatience with the criminal justice system.
"I've got time," she said.
Colleen Jenkins can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3337.