BROOKSVILLE — Jason Blair took the witness stand Tuesday and explained why he fled after hitting a pedestrian one night in February 2008.
He knew he hit someone and he stopped, Blair said. But when he heard screaming and someone yelled, "I'm going to kill you," he took off.
"The reason that I left was I was in fear of my life," Blair said.
The man he struck, Anthony Morales, died hours later.
Two relatives, who were walking with him that night, disputed Blair's account. He didn't stop. Didn't even slow down. They don't remember making threats.
But the jury believed Blair. After two hours of deliberation, jurors found him not guilty of leaving the scene of an accident involving death, which carries a maximum of 30 years in prison.
Blair's rationale — a rare legal argument — is the only justifiable defense for leaving the scene of an accident under state law.
The acquittal surprised prosecutors and left Morales' relatives crying as they walked from the courtroom. "I'm disappointed, obviously," Assistant State Attorney Don Barbee said afterward. "I feel bad for the family who still didn't get justice or closure."
But the victim's sister, Yvonne Morales, said the verdict reflected influence and affluence more than legal arguments.
Her 35-year-old brother didn't have it; neither did Wendy or Matt Luppo, the relatives who testified.
Blair, 30, is the son of a former Florida Highway Patrol trooper who is now a regional manager for Farm Bureau Insurance.
The day Morales was hit on State Road 50, just after 1 a.m. on Feb. 18, he was walking to Wal-Mart to buy lunch with food stamps before work at a day labor agency.
Blair, a married father of four, was on his way home from a Hooters restaurant where he was a manager.
The prominence of his father, Gwynn Blair, in the Brooksville community forced the criminal traffic prosecutor and all the local felony judges to withdraw from the case. Eventually, a judge from two counties away was assigned.
Blair testified that he called his father — but not 911 — after hitting Morales and asked him to meet him at his house. A sheriff's deputy stopped him short and his father came to the scene of the arrest.
The prosecutor noted these details and suggested in his closing argument that the elder Blair gave his son the alibi. "You think (his father) knew what you needed to say to get out of a leaving-the-scene case?" Barbee said. "Is this a 'defense of necessity' or a defense of convenience?"
A "defense of necessity" is a six-pronged standard that allows someone to commit a crime if they reasonably perceive imminent danger. Unlike most cases, it forces the defense, not the prosecution, to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt.
"This gives you an escape route," defense attorney Ellis Faught Jr. told jurors.
He asked the six jurors to put themselves in his client's position when he made the decision to leave. In interviews, jurors acknowledged emotions played a role in the verdict.
"We like to think we would stop, but you never know until it happens," said Joyce Livingston of Brooksville. "It's a split-second decision."
John Frank can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 754-6114.