TAMPA — An odd prop loomed Monday in Courtroom 14.
Defense attorneys for towing company owner Donald Montanez brought the shell of a car to show how one of Montanez's employees had been run down by an aggressive man set on getting his car back.
Montanez shot and killed that driver, Glen Rich, on Jan. 8, 2006. Defense attorneys say Montanez feared for his own life as the car hurtled toward him.
But by the end of a two-hour cross-examination, Rich seemed less aggressive and more like a man simply interested in liberating his car. And by late afternoon, the prop was aiding the prosecution.
The night of Jan. 7, 2006, had started as one of celebration for Rich and his two brothers, who ended up at a Tampa club called the Sugar Shack early the next morning. When they emerged, they saw their car being towed. Rich was shot as he tried to drive away in it.
During testimony Monday, the towing employee, Cory Crites, stood in front of the car prop and explained how he rolled across the passenger side of the hood and fell to the ground as the car sped away. He testified that he had jumped as the car approached so it wouldn't run over him.
"I was afraid to go under the car," he said.
But when Assistant State Attorney Jay Pruner questioned Crites, the towing employee said that he had walked into the car's path as Rich started its engine.
"So you put yourself into the line of danger of that vehicle?" prosecutor Pruner asked.
"I believe so," Crites answered. "Yes."
Crites explained that he had been standing in front of the middle of the car, yet hit the passenger side of the hood. Skid marks show that the car had swerved left.
That indicates, Pruner contended, that Rich had turned the car left in an attempt to avoid hitting Crites.
Monday started with testimony from Hillsborough County sheriff's deputies and experts for the defense.
But jurors never heard the strongest opinions from the stand, made by defense witness Michael Platt, a retired Pinellas County deputy and firearms expert.
According to Platt, the towing company owner was justified in shooting Rich as Rich tried to drive off with his car.
Platt said that based on what he had been told about the case — which was that towing company owner Montanez was in the car's path as it accelerated toward him — it seemed reasonable that Montanez would fire his gun at the car in fear.
"His defense is to use the tools that he has," Platt said. In this case, a gun.
But months ago, the judge ruled that Platt's testimony was based on cognitive science too new and untested to be admissible in court. So Platt took the stand Monday without the jury present.
According to Platt, the events that morning happened so fast that by the time Montanez realized he was in harm's way, grabbed his gun and fired it, the bullet would have shattered the window of the car — which, by that point, would be passing to his side.
Prosecutors say the fact the bullet pierced the side window shows that Montanez wasn't in front of the car, as he says he was.
Jurors did listen to a 911 call made by Rich.
It starts with yelling, and Rich says, "I want my car right now." He continues speaking loudly as a dispatcher tries to get his location.
Then a series of loud noises — a car's engine, the shattering of glass — punctuate the call.
Rich says, "I've been hit."
Reach Jessica Vander Velde at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3433.