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Emotion erupts during Tampa murder trial

TAMPA — Moments after hearing a 911 tape Tuesday of his younger brother screaming from a gunshot to the heart, Joshua Stewart lunged at the man accused of firing the fatal bullet.

In an instant, jurors' attention turned from the man on trial for first-degree murder to the one grieving his lost sibling.

"Come here," Stewart sobbed from the front row of the courtroom gallery. "I'm 20 feet away from him. My brother's dead, you piece of s---."

He never touched Timothy Blackwelder, the defendant. Bailiffs swarmed Stewart in seconds and dragged him from the courtroom.

His mother hurried after him in tears as Hillsborough Circuit Judge Robert Foster hastily ordered jurors out a back door.

Stewart could still be heard crying in the hallway when Assistant Public Defender Kenneth Littman sprang to his feet and asked for a mistrial.

Foster instead adjourned the proceedings to allow everyone to regroup.

The outburst caught even veteran attorneys off guard.

"I've been doing this 30 years, and I've never seen that before," Littman said.

Until about 2:45 p.m. Tuesday, the trial had been routine.

Attorneys laid out their cases in the morning. A prosecutor said Blackwelder, 25, tried to kick in the door of the home where George Anthony Stewart Jr., 24, and his wife, Brittani Key Stewart, were with their toddler twin daughters last year.

Blackwelder fired one shot into Stewart's chest with a gun that belonged to his mother's boyfriend, Assistant State Attorney Jalal Harb said. He fled to Georgia with Stewart's wife in her van.

Littman said his client was not the shooter and only a "spectator" to the crime. He didn't say who he thought killed Stewart.

He asked jurors to scrutinize the testimony of Brittani Stewart, who married her husband in February 2007, but began a sexual relationship with Blackwelder soon after. She continued that relationship and indicated plans to start a new life with Blackwelder in another state even after obtaining a restraining order against him, the defense attorney said.

"While Brittani Key certainly cared for her husband, George Stewart, she loved Mr. Blackwelder," Littman said.

Before the prosecution played the 911 tape, the judge warned Stewart's family members that they might not want to hear its dramatic contents.

They stayed put.

George Stewart had placed his first call to authorities Dec. 7 at 3:42 p.m. He sounded calm as he reported that Blackwelder was violating the restraining order by standing on the back porch of the home where Stewart's wife had been living.

On Tuesday, Tampa police spokeswoman Laura McElroy said the call was not designated as top priority at that point.

Things became more urgent when Stewart called back at 3:47 p.m. He said Blackwelder had just stolen his wife's van. While Stewart was still on the phone, Blackwelder returned.

Stewart said he was going to beat up Blackwelder, but the 911 operator told him to stay inside.

"He's threatening," Stewart said.

"We've got an officer on the way," the operator said.

"He better not step one foot in this house," Stewart said.

The operator urged him to be patient. "Don't do anything stupid," she said.

"Now he's got a gun pointing at me!" Stewart said.

"Oh, my gosh," the operator gasped.

Stewart yelled twice more that Blackwelder had a gun. The operator asked if Blackwelder was inside or outside of the house and — bang — a gun fired. Stewart's agonizing screams followed.

"He just shot me!" Stewart said.

Jurors were cleared from the courtroom before hearing the tape end with his moans and labored breaths.

McElroy said officers arrived at the scene four minutes after the call was dispatched. Stewart was dead; the toddlers, unharmed.

Foster asked the 14 jurors individually whether the chaos would affect their ability to remain fair and impartial. He dismissed one woman from the panel, the only juror who said her opinion might be affected by what she had seen.

The defense will argue for a mistrial this morning. Foster seemed disinclined to grant the motion, leaving the issue vulnerable to appeal.

The judge refused outright Littman's request for Joshua Stewart to be held in contempt of court, but banned him from the rest of the trial.

Pamela Sansom, Joshua and George Stewart's mother, tried to make sense of her living son's actions.

"All I can tell you is he's hurting," she said. "He lost his only brother."

Colleen Jenkins can be reached at cjenkins@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3337.

Emotion erupts during Tampa murder trial 05/20/08 [Last modified: Friday, May 23, 2008 10:07am]
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