TAMPA — "We wanted to be able to live with our decision," said Lindsay Brown, forewoman of a jury that deliberated for 17 hours over three days before convicting the killer of a 2-year-old girl Thursday.
"This was someone's life on the line," Brown said. "None of us wanted to have any doubts."
When the jury pronounced Eric Tate, 23, guilty of first-degree murder and aggravated child abuse in the death of toddler Heather Romance, emotions pent up during the long deliberations spilled out.
Prosecutor Rita Peters turned and reached for Heather's mother, Amy Romance, clutching her in tears. Even bailiffs shook hands with Romance's family.
"This was wrenching for everyone involved," said Peters, who had sought the conviction for almost five years.
Hillsborough Circuit Judge William Fuente immediately sentenced Tate to life in prison without a chance of parole for the murder and 30 years on the child abuse charge.
From the beginning in 2006, the case was high profile. Besides murder and child abuse, Tate was also charged with Heather's rape. The State Attorney's Office assigned two top prosecutors — Peters and Kim Hindman. They sought the death penalty. Defense attorney Brian Gonzalez was named to represent Tate because he is state certified for death penalty cases.
The rape charge didn't hold up. Amy Romance said she was told that the prosecution lacked enough evidence to be sure of a conviction. Prosecutors decided against going for the death penalty as well.
"I don't think I ever wanted to believe there was rape," Romance said.
But the prosecution was sure that Tate, while babysitting Heather in their Lutz home, had either thrown her or struck her hard enough to cause fatal brain injuries.
During the eight-day trial, doctors from St. Joseph's Hospital said the brain injuries looked like the result of a beating. They were too severe, the doctors said, to have been caused by an accidental fall.
But Gonzalez brought in a biomechanical engineer who used a toddler-sized crash-test dummy from Detroit to demonstrate that Heather could have been fatally injured by a fall from a sofa.
Forewoman Brown said jurors thought Gonzalez showed that a fatal accidental fall was possible.
"But was it reasonably probable?" she asked. "Common sense came into play."
Although jurors went home for the night twice without a verdict, Brown said there was never a lot of disagreement — just the weight of responsibility for someone's life.
She said jurors polled themselves periodically. They weren't ready to commit.
"People didn't feel comfortable saying one way or another," Brown said. "We went in a very systematic manner, looking at each piece of evidence. All of us needed to be in agreement on every part."
Because there were no eyewitnesses, the evidence was largely circumstantial.
"A lot of us wanted a smoking gun," she said, "but we weren't going to get that."
That the jurors came together on a verdict they could be proud of was one of the most important moments of Brown's life, something she called "a life-changing event."
For Amy Romance, Heather's mother, it's the start of a new life. She was pregnant when Heather was killed and lost that baby, she said. But she now has two boys, ages 4 and 2, and she will soon be married.
She's stronger now, she said, and her life is on course.
"I've grown a lot."
John Barry can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3383.