Monday, February 19, 2018
News Roundup

Accused of murder and facing death penalty, Pinellas man acts as own attorney

Craig Wall is a man accused of two murders, a man facing the death penalty, a man who has decided he'll act as his own attorney in trial next week.

So in a preparatory court hearing on Friday, Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Philip J. Federico asked Wall if he understood the purpose of voir dire, or questioning potential jurors.

"Picking some idiots to sit over there," Wall said, motioning toward the jury box.

"That's not exactly the traditional description, but we'll go from there," Federico deadpanned.

Not much is traditional in the case of Wall, who is accused of killing his 5-week-old son in Clearwater in 2010, and stabbing his girlfriend Laura Taft, 29, to death less than two weeks later.

Wall, 39, has previously said in court that he would be willing to plead guilty to killing Taft, and get the death penalty — as long as charges are dropped against him in the case involving his son.

Unlike most jailed defendants, who have the opportunity to dress up in nice clothes during trial, Wall has decided to appear in his jail scrubs instead. Wall, who has a shaved head and a bushy beard that ends in a braid, will have the right to question potential jurors directly when the trial starts next week.

Meanwhile, Taft's mother, Rhonda Lyon-Buttita, who has attended virtually every court hearing over the past four years, said she also will be in court.

•••

From the beginning, the two tragic killings have led to serious legal questions.

Wall has lived a badly a troubled life. He was profiled in this newspaper in 1988 as "a boy out of control," at age 12. His mother told a reporter she feared that if she grounded him, "I might not wake up."

He was sent to a halfway house, and to the notorious Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, and spent 14 years in various Florida prisons for robbery with a deadly weapon and armed burglary. He acquired multiple tattoos, including "RAHOWA," an acronym for Racial Holy War.

He met Laura Taft in Largo shortly after getting out of prison. Their baby, Craig Wall Jr., who was called "CJ," was born shortly after Christmas 2009.

The boy was killed five weeks later. He had suffered broken ribs and brain trauma, and went into cardiac arrest.

Court records make it clear that Clearwater police considered Wall a suspect almost immediately and that they thought the injuries occurred while in his care. He was not immediately charged with murder. When Wall did get arrested a few days later for something else, the fact that he was a suspect in his baby's death — stated clearly on an arrest affidavit — was never mentioned in court.

Three days after getting out of jail, he was still not charged with his son's murder. Police say that's when he crashed through a sliding glass door and stabbed Taft to death.

Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe later said he was "dumbfounded" at how his office handled the case, and reassigned one of his prosecutors.

And Wall himself apparently was alluding to this in one of his comments in Friday's hearing.

"I've attempted to take responsibility and they won't let me. They won't let me because Bernie almost lost his … job in 2010 because I killed her."

He claimed prosecutors have a vendetta against him.

At that, Federico warned Wall he will not be allowed to espouse such theories when he is questioning potential jurors, or explain that he has offered to be executed.

"There's no legal basis for saying 'I want the death penalty, so you should impose it,' " Federico told him.

The judge said he hoped Wall would be able to restrain himself from future outbursts.

"You don't have impulse control to be able to stop yourself from talking out when you want to talk out, and I fear that the same thing's going to happen in front of a jury," Federico said.

•••

Representing yourself in a case that could lead to your execution might sound so crazy that no one would ever attempt it. Yet some do.

"Whereas once it was practically unknown, now we are seeing it with a disturbing frequency," said J. Marion Moorman, the retired public defender for the 10th Judicial Circuit, who is not involved in Wall's case.

Moorman said that when people defend themselves, the courts must first make sure they are mentally competent. They also must understand some basics of the legal system, such as the fact that they can choose to testify or not, to call witnesses to the stand or not.

Wall has been evaluated and declared mentally fit for trial.

At Friday's hearing, Wall complained about prosecutors' tactics. He complained that he had not been able to subpoena witnesses, and said evidence in the case was being provided to him at the last minute.

Federico spent more than an hour on the hearing, and asked Wall if there was anything else that needed to be addressed.

"Clearly you won't want to address reality here, you want to … just screw me," Wall shot back.

Jury selection begins Monday morning.

Curtis Krueger can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8232.

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