Saturday, October 20, 2018
News Roundup

Clearwater man convicted of killing his girlfriend and baby sentenced to death on both counts

John Bredeson leaned back on a wooden bench Friday afternoon and surveyed the courtroom. Family and friends were seated in front of him. Beyond them, six bailiffs waited for Craig Wall, the man who killed Bredeson's daughter, Laura Taft, and his grandson, to enter the room.

"It's been a long road," Bredeson said moments before Wall stood in front of Pinellas Circuit Judge Philip Federico for his sentence: death penalty on both counts of first-degree murder.

"I conclude that you, Mr. Wall, under the laws of the state of Florida, have forfeited your right to live," Federico said.

"Woo hoo!" Wall, 41, quipped. He has said repeatedly in court that he wants to be executed.

His sentence concludes a case that has spiraled through the court system for years.

It began in 2008, when Wall met Taft, 29, after getting out of prison following a 14-year sentence for armed robbery, grand theft motor vehicle and armed burglary. Their baby, Craig Wall Jr., was born Dec. 30, 2009.

When Taft returned to work, Wall stayed home to care for their son. Five weeks later, the boy went into cardiac arrest and died at a local hospital.

When Wall was arrested a few days later on a charge of violating a domestic violence injunction, the arrest affidavit noted that he was a suspect in his baby's death, but that fact was never mentioned in court and he was released on $1,000 bail. The State Attorney's Office later acknowledged the case was mishandled. One of the prosecutors was reassigned.

A day after getting out of jail in February 2010, Wall broke the sliding glass door of Taft's Clearwater apartment at 3 a.m., entered with a large "assault style" knife and stabbed her to death. Neighbors heard her cries for help and called 911. Taft's older son, Connor Taft, was 5 years old when she died.

"Laura was a wonderful person," said her mother, Rhonda Lyon-Buttita, on Friday. "She was very loving, very caring. She was a good mom. She just got mixed up with the wrong man. She didn't deserve to die."

During the sentencing, Lyon-Buttita and her loved ones wore pins printed with a photo of Taft holding her newborn son as she rested on a couch. The family does not have many photographs of the mother and son together, Lyon-Buttita said.

Wall, who pleaded guilty last year to killing Taft and no contest to killing their child, has said through the years that he wanted a spot on death row.

When Federico, the judge, said in court Friday that his case would undergo an automatic review by the Florida Supreme Court, Wall raised his voice.

"The system is corrupt. They're going to force my name on something against my will," he said. "As Donald Trump would say, 'This is complete utter corruption in this system.' "

Wall also asked Federico to watch his execution since he sentenced him to die. The judge said he'd consider Wall's request.

Assistant State Attorney Kendall Davidson said he believed the death penalty is the "appropriate sentence." Wall's knowledge of the law set him apart from other defendants in recent years, Davidson added. Wall also represented himself in recent months.

"He's pretty different. He's, I think, a lot more self legally educated," Davidson said. "His arguments are normally based on some sort of a legal precedent."

The case was delayed for six years, he explained, partly because Wall had different attorneys through the years.

Typically, during the penalty phase of a case, prosecutors present evidence in favor of the defendant's execution, called aggravating factors, and defense attorneys present evidence against the death penalty, like childhood trauma or mental health history, called mitigating factors.

But when Wall was allowed to represent himself, the judge assigned an independent counsel to present mitigating evidence on Wall's behalf since he declined to do that.

"That caused a pretty significant delay because the independent counsel had to start from scratch," Davidson said.

Bjorn Brunvand, Wall's defense attorney, said he planned to withdraw from the case. Personally, he added, he does not believe in the death penalty and called it "barbaric."

Federico's sentencing order detailed the aggravating and mitigating factors he considered in his decision. Among them was Wall's childhood trauma, from being mistreated by his mother to attending the Dozier School for Boys, which has been under scrutiny for abuse of its students.

"I think (Wall) is someone who has had a difficult life," Brunvand said. "In many ways, I feel sorry for Mr. Wall."

After Wall left the courtroom, Taft's mother embraced the loved ones surrounding her.

"It's a roller coaster ride," she said moments later. "But we are finally getting justice."

Contact Laura C. Morel at [email protected] Follow @lauracmorel.

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