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Appeals court: Fatal I-275 crash in St. Petersburg wasn't murder

Charles Hicks enters Judge Richard Luce’s courtroom in 2009, where he was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.

JAMES BORCHUCK | Times (2009)

Charles Hicks enters Judge Richard Luce’s courtroom in 2009, where he was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.

ST. PETERSBURG — Charles Hicks committed an utterly senseless crime.

Speeding down the streets of St. Petersburg in a green Ford Escort, he got police officers to pursue him, zoomed the wrong way up Interstate 275, smashed into an oncoming car and killed Steven Cornell, 22, a popular former Seminole High School basketball player.

Hicks was arrested, tried and convicted. So how does an important case like this wind up with fundamental errors, prompting an appeals court to throw out Hicks' second-degree murder conviction?

That's what Jeanie Cornell, Steven's mother, would like to know.

"I was shocked," she said, describing how she felt after learning Hicks' life sentence would be thrown out. "I thought the whole thing was done. It's like closure."

Hicks is scheduled to go back to court next month, so a judge can impose a new sentence. Cornell plans to argue it should be a long one.

"If it was up to me," she said, "he would suffer like my son did."

• • •

On the night of Sept. 26, 2007, Steven Cornell and Charles Hicks were on very different journeys.

Cornell was taking classes at St. Petersburg College and working as a waiter at trendy Ceviche in downtown St. Petersburg. Because he had gotten a DUI, his younger sister helped by driving him home on I-275, in a maroon Toyota Camry.

Hicks, 32 at the time, had a lengthy criminal record and no driver's license. Back in 2001, police considered him a suspect in a different murder and he escaped them — by driving the wrong way up I-275. He was eventually caught and found not guilty of that crime.

On the September night in 2007, Hicks twice swerved the Escort toward police cars. Officers pursued him but then called it off because of the danger. Then Hicks zipped up an I-275 off-ramp.

The two cars collided with tremendous force, killing Steven Cornell.

A jury last year found Hicks guilty of second-degree murder, vehicular homicide, driving with a suspended license and other crimes. A judge sentenced him to life in prison.

• • •

But attorneys for Cornell raised a new question on appeal: Was it murder?

More than a year after the verdict, Florida's 2nd District Court of Appeal decided "the state failed to present evidence to prove the necessary intent for second-degree murder."

Why? Because second-degree murder cases in Florida require prosecutors to prove someone acted with "ill will, hatred, spite or an evil intent."

The court said Hicks' wrong-way drive "was indeed done with a reckless disregard to human life." But the court also said "there was no evidence that the act was done with hatred, spite, evil intent or ill will towards the occupants of the other car."

And, the court added, "Hicks did not have time to develop a level of enmity toward the victim. The cars approached each other on an overpass, and the drivers did not see each other until it was too late."

In other words, the court said prosecutors hadn't actually proved Hicks acted with something like "evil intent." And the court also criticized Hicks' defense attorney, saying "there is no reasonable tactical explanation" for his failure to point out this problem with the state's murder case.

So the appeals court sent the case back to the courtroom of Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Richard Luce, saying he should impose a sentence for manslaughter instead.

Scott Rosenwasser, who prosecuted the case for the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office, said he understands the ruling. But he contends the state was right to charge Hicks with second-degree murder. He said Hicks' behavior that night "certainly shows evil intent. It's not as though he accidentally got onto the highway going the wrong way."

But given the appeals court's ruling, Rosenwasser said he will urge Luce to impose a 30-year sentence, to be served after the 30 years Luce imposed for other crimes that night that were not thrown out by the appeals court. That would give Hicks 60 years, minus the time he already has served — practically a life sentence.

Hicks' new sentencing date is scheduled for Oct. 6.

Curtis Krueger can be reached at (727) 893-8232 or ckrueger@sptimes.com.

Check and balance

The Charles Hicks case is an example of how appeals courts examine the workings of trials to make sure things were done fairly and in accordance with the U.S. and Florida constitutions.

During a trial, "judges are there to do the best job they can, but (appeals courts) act as a check and balance," said Tom Elligett, a Tampa appellate lawyer not involved in this case.

Appeals courts often listen to attorneys debate whether there have been errors in trials, such as violations of the U.S. Constitution, Elligett said. Appeals courts also clarify the law, deciding how it applies to individual cases, in a process called "law development," he said.

So in some ways appeals courts are the umpires of the legal system. But umpires don't order two baseball teams to play a game over. In the court system, it happens regularly.

Appeals court: Fatal I-275 crash in St. Petersburg wasn't murder 09/19/10 [Last modified: Sunday, September 19, 2010 1:22am]
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