Attorneys debate whether Sean Eckard's death was accident or brother's revenge

BROOKSVILLE — Father's Day 2010 was supposed to be a joyous occasion for the Eckard household, a time to celebrate patriarch Samuel Eckard and the birthday of his wife, Donna.

But one of the couple's sons, 19-year-old Sean, never showed up to a party that Sunday. By then, his body was decomposing in a shallow grave in the side yard of the family's Spring Hill home.

How Sean Eckard got there is not in dispute: His brother, Stanley, buried him early the previous morning.

On Tuesday, Assistant State Attorney Pete Magrino set out to convince a Hernando County jury that Stanley planned the killing.

During opening arguments, as Eckard sat stone-faced at the defense table, Magrino told jurors that the 24-year-old murdered his younger brother in cold blood because he was upset that Sean was dating a woman Stanley had dated.

Earlier on the morning of June 19, Magrino said, Eckard went into Sean's bedroom and wrapped an elastic cord around his brother's neck. The men fell, and Sean suffered a broken neck and fractured skull.

"(Stanley) dug a hole in the side yard, where he placed Sean's body, filled in the hole, went back inside and fell asleep," Magrino said. "That's murder in the state of Florida."

After his arrest, Eckard several times changed his story about how Sean died, Magrino said. Eckard told investigators that Sean was selling drugs and might have been killed because he owed someone money. Then he said he came into his bedroom that morning and saw Sean trying to hang himself. As Stanley tried to help, Sean fell and died.

Finally, Magrino said, Stanley told the truth.

"He said I did it, and it was because of the girl," Magrino said.

During his opening remarks, Chief Assistant Public Defender Alan Fanter told jurors there was no plan to kill Sean.

He said Stanley did go into his brother's room that morning, the two men started to argue and then struggle. Fanter said Sean pinned Stanley against the wall, Stanley pushed back, and they fell to the floor. Sean hit his head on a nightstand and died.

Then Stanley made a poor choice, Fanter said. Worried about the impact the death would have on Donna Eckard and her weak heart, he decided to hide the body and tell his father Samuel later.

"Don't let the fact that he tried to cover it up cloud the facts that led to (Sean's) death," Fanter told the jury. "A tragic accident happened that day, not a crime."

Later Tuesday, Dr. Barbara Wolf, chief medical examiner for the 5th Judicial Circuit, testified that Sean Eckard died from blunt force trauma to the head and neck. There were no obvious signs of strangulation on his neck, but there was bleeding in the muscle under the skin that could have been a result of being strangled, Wolf said.

Fanter asked Wolf if Sean Eckard could have suffered the injuries by hitting his head on the nightstand as the two men struggled. She said it was possible.

Danny Mello, a friend of both men who was staying at the Eckard house at the time, testified that Stanley was "sore" about being rejected by a woman named Samantha Nicholson, who then started dating Sean.

That wasn't the only reason resentment might have simmered, according to Mello's testimony.

"He once told me that Sean was shown favoritism (by) the family," Mello said.

Several days before Sean's death, Mello and the brothers had a conversation about revenge. Mello testified that he brought up the subject because he was angry at a friend who had slept with his girlfriend.

According to Mello, Stanley said if he wanted to kill a person, he would hit him in the back of the head, then bury the corpse in the yard.

"It was all hypothetical," Mello said. "Or at least it was believed to be."

Mello said just before Sean's death, Stanley got upset when he saw his brother and Nicholson together.

On that Saturday morning, Mello said, he awoke, and Stanley told him Sean had packed up and left. Later that day, Mello testified, Stanley said Sean had texted him two or three times saying he was out of state. Mello said that on Sunday, Stanley mentioned he was thinking of moving to Japan. On Monday, he awoke to screams and looked out the window to see Samuel Eckard digging in the yard.

During cross-examination, Mello acknowledged that Sean had a short temper and once got mad enough about the drama over Nicholson to throw something against the wall.

Asked which brother could take the other in a fight, Mello said Sean.

"Did you ever make that statement, 'If there's anything I can do to keep (Stanley) behind bars, I'm more than willing to help?' " Fanter asked.

"Yes, sir," Mello replied.

Fanter did not ask him to elaborate.

The trial is expected to conclude by Friday.

Reach Tony Marrero @tmarrero@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1431. Follow @tmarrerotimes on Twitter.

Attorneys debate whether Sean Eckard's death was accident or brother's revenge 04/09/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 9, 2013 9:40pm]

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