An appeals court has granted a new trial for a Tampa man who got 30 years in prison for a 2007 shooting in Land O'Lakes that he claimed was self defense.
The 2nd District Court of Appeal found that Circuit Judge Pat Siracusa erred in his final instruction to jurors during the 2010 trial of Sean Christopher Stewart by telling them that Stewart's self-defense argument would not apply if he was "attempting to commit, committing, or escaping after the commission of a felony battery."
The higher court pointed out that Stewart, who was charged with second-degree murder in the death of his friend, James Scott Baisden, was not charged with felony battery. He faced a charge of aggravated assault for pointing the gun at Baisden's roommate. He was convicted on that charge.
"The likelihood that this instruction created confusion for the jury is compounded because the trial court gave no instruction explaining the definition of 'felony battery,'" the appellate court said. "Why felony battery was selected for use in this instruction is unclear."
The shooting happened the night of Dec. 2, 2007. Stewart, then 37, had gone to the Land O'Lakes home of Baisden, a childhood friend, to hang out with friends and watch television.
Several other people came over and Stewart brought out two of his guns to show off, but it made the group nervous. The guns were stuck in a drawer, witnesses said, and later when Stewart went to leave he became enraged when he couldn't find them.
Stewart said Baisden began punching him and the others joined in. He said he was knocked unconscious on the floor of the house.
When he woke up, he said, he went outside to his truck to leave, but didn't have his keys. So he broke the passenger window to look for a spare set but instead found a .22-caliber pistol.
When he saw Baisden and his roommate coming out of the house, Stewart said, he asked them again about his guns, and they charged at him.
"I'd already been beaten unconscious," Stewart said on the witness stand. "I was scared. I pulled the gun out of my pocket and fired it."
Baisden died several days later after developing pneumonia as a result of the gunshot wound.
Within minutes of the shooting, Stewart was telling deputies he was the victim in the incident. During his conversation with authorities, he invoked the controversial "stand your ground" law passed in 2005.
"I'm going to stand my ground, dude," Stewart told a detective during the drive to jail. "Jeb Bush said I could."
During the trial, prosecutors said there was no threat, and it wasn't fear motivating Stewart.
They also pointed out that blood and a bullet had been found in the house, consistent with the allegation that Baisden was shot in the doorway and not in the yard.
The appeals court said an injury to Stewart's head was consistent with his story about being attacked in the house but called the location of the bullet "problematic."
Witnesses at the party, who were drinking liquor and taking Xanax, "did not contribute to coherent, consistent testimony," the court noted.
"We have carefully considered whether the location of the bloody projectile might be evidence sufficient to make Mr. Stewart's defense 'extremely weak,' " the court said. "But after considering Mr. Stewart's full cooperation at the scene of these events and after carefully reviewing his long statement to the police, we conclude that his defense had sufficient strength that he is entitled to a new trial with proper jury instructions."
Stewart's trial attorney, Cliff Travis, did not return calls for comment Thursday.