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Court: Largo man serving life shouldn't have been convicted of murder

LARGO — Three years after Corey J. Rocker was sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison, an appeals court has decided the 22-year-old Largo man should never have been convicted of murder.

The court's ruling is a dramatic turn that could result in Rocker's freedom — if it holds up.

But this is not one of those appeals based on new DNA evidence or a witness who misidentified someone. At its heart, this appeal touches on a question so basic you almost never hear it discussed.

The question: What is murder?

• • •

Brennon Darvane Days, 18, was shot in the head on Jan. 24, 2008. His body was found in the driver's seat of a 1996 Chrysler on 127th Avenue N in an unincorporated area near Largo.

He was Brenda Days' only child, and she is still grieving. When a reporter called last week with news of the appeal, she was too upset to talk.

"When somebody takes your only, it's a burden on your life forever," said her brother, Andre Days.

Two teenagers were arrested in the shooting: Mitterrio D. Banks, 15, and Corey J. Rocker, 16. They were each tried as adults and convicted of first-degree murder. They were sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole.

According to police and prosecutors, Banks held the gun and fired the bullet that killed Days.

Rocker was found guilty of murder under Florida's "felony murder" law, which allows for a person to be convicted of murder even if he's not the triggerman if he was committing another crime at the time.

This law, central to his conviction, is also the cornerstone of his appeal.

• • •

Felony murder applies to robbery, kidnapping, burglary, arson and various other crimes. If someone dies during the commission of one of these felonies, the participants can be charged with murder.

But the law doesn't apply to all crimes, and public defenders from the 10th Judicial Circuit argued that Rocker's was one of those cases.

There is evidence, they said, that Rocker was not trying to rob Days when he was shot.

"Rocker was not carrying the pistol, and he made no demand for money," the opinion from Florida's 2nd District Court of Appeal says. A witness who testified did not say anything about Rocker being at or near the car at the time of the shooting.

So what was Rocker doing when he showed up with Banks, and made phone calls trying to get Days to meet them? He may simply have wanted to buy drugs from Days, his attorneys said.

That might not sound like much of a distinction because buying drugs also is illegal. But buying drugs isn't one of the crimes included in the felony murder law.

And this is why Rocker's freedom could hinge on the question of how you define murder.

Under Florida law, two people committing a robbery together, with someone dying as a result, counts as felony murder. But if two people — or even one of them — merely intend to buy drugs, that doesn't count.

Even if a teenager dies after being shot in the head.

• • •

The legal argument is not the only part of this case with twists and turns. The appeal itself has taken a strange route through the justice system, and it's not finished yet.

Three judges from the 2nd District Court of Appeal heard the case and issued their opinion in November 2012. Two judges sided with prosecutors, saying the evidence of robbery and therefore murder was sufficient. So the defense lost.

But the losing side filed a motion for a rehearing. The court reconsidered the case. By this time, the judge who wrote the first opinion, James W. Whatley, had retired. A new judge, Stevan T. Northcutt, joined the panel and sided with the defense. So the new opinion issued last month came out 2-1 in favor of Rocker.

Assistant Public Defender Rocky Sharwell, who handled the appeal, said he was gratified by the court's opinion, which he said focused on whether Rocker knew of a plan to rob Days and whether he intended to help.

Defense attorney Bjorn Brunvand, who represented Rocker at trial, praised Sharwell's work. Rocker, he said, "did not knowingly and willingly participate in a murder. He did not knowingly and willingly participate in a robbery."

But it's not over.

Chief Assistant State Attorney Bruce Bartlett said prosecutors have been in touch with the state Attorney General's Office about seeking another rehearing.

Andre Days, 48, the uncle of the teenager who was shot and killed, hopes prosecutors succeed. If Rocker didn't know what was going on, why didn't he testify against the shooter, Days asked.

"Even if (Rocker) didn't pull the trigger he was there to do wrong," Days said. "They worked as a team."

Curtis Krueger can be reached at ckrueger@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8232. Twitter: @ckruegertimes.

Court: Largo man serving life shouldn't have been convicted of murder 09/15/13 [Last modified: Sunday, September 15, 2013 11:02pm]
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