Tuesday, May 22, 2018
News Roundup

For families of homicide victims, wait for justice adds to pain

Lisa Wheeler Brown thought it would be over by now.

Two years have passed since authorities arrested the man accused of killing her son in a mysterious double murder at an auto repair shop in the Lealman area.

Brown hoped a trial would have happened months ago. Once, it might have.

Already though, a judge has delayed the trial twice.

"To continue to go to court every month, thinking something is going to happen … it's mentally draining," Brown said. "I'm ready to get justice for my son."

She is not alone.

Dozens of Tampa Bay families each year lose a loved one to murder — losses that are usually sudden, intensely painful and completely unexpected.

And then most families start to endure a new agony: a sluggish, confusing court process. For relatives of murder victims, the slow torture of the legal system provides a whole new stage of grief.

"I always try to tell the families, you need to prepare yourself for a roller coaster ride," said Pinellas sheriff's Sgt. John Spoor, a former homicide detective. "That's the only way I know to describe it."

The ride often starts with a rapid-fire series of events: the death, the arrest, the news coverage.

And then comes the slow part, like the roller coaster methodically cranking up to the next rise. The first pretrial hearing. And more pretrial hearings, where nothing seems to happen. And then a trial date, which is usually rescheduled to a second trial date, and sometimes a third.

By then, years may have passed.

In Hillsborough County, Curtis Baughman always makes sure to tell family members of victims, "this is not going to be a quick process. It's going to take months, if not years, before there's a resolution to the case."

Baughman is a victim's intake counselor who works with the state attorney's office. He also tells families that after the court case is finally over, "then at that point is where they really get to grieving privately and on their time."

Authorities do not track how long it takes for murder cases to wind their way through the system. Anecdotally, officials said it is usually about two years in the Tampa Bay area.

The Times recently reviewed more than 50 homicide cases from 2010 investigated by the Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner's Office and found:

In nine of the cases, the people charged are still awaiting trial. The defendants include Jennifer Mee, who gained Internet notoriety for a case of hiccups that wouldn't stop, and who later was arrested in the death of Shannon Griffin, 22.

Another case from 2010 was not decided until last week, when Roberto Valle was found guilty of second-degree murder in the stabbing death of Donald Nemeth, 22, near Pinellas Park. Valle is scheduled to be sentenced April 17.

In 24 other cases, the defendants have been found guilty or pleaded guilty (sometimes to lesser charges such as manslaughter). These include Arunya Rouch, convicted of murdering her co-worker Gregory Janowski, outside a Tarpon Springs Publix.

In at least five of the deaths, authorities decided no charges should be filed, such as in cases of self-defense. In one case, prosecutors declined to pursue manslaughter charges against a strip club bouncer who restrained a customer, saying the bouncer's actions were reasonable in light of the customer's aggressive actions.

There also were four murder-suicides. And a half-dozen cases remain unsolved.

The number of murder cases that stretch on for years in the court system is a change from 20 to 30 years ago, when it wasn't uncommon for the arrest and conviction to come in the same year.

"It is a problem and I don't know that there is a way to solve it," said Pinellas-Pasco Chief Assistant State Attorney Bruce Bartlett.

Lawyers cite several reasons it takes so long for a murder case to come to trial. One is the science of crime scenes. There used to be no need for court hearings about DNA evidence, for example.

And just as society as a whole has become more litigious, so has the narrow world of prosecuting murder cases, Bartlett said.

"Unfortunately with murder cases, because of the nature of the charge, the penalty of a potential life sentence or even death, the courts tend to be even more cautious to progress to trial when a defense lawyer says he or she is not ready," Bartlett said.

A defendant has a constitutional right to a fair trial. So if a judge insists on conducting a trial, even after the defense attorney asks for more time to prepare, that can be grounds for appeal.

Of course, it's not only defense attorneys who ask for delays. It's also prosecutors, who often are dealing with the sticky problem of getting witnesses to testify in court, in spite of social pressure not to.

"There's a lot of steps that (families) don't understand," said Jeanette Bright, a victim's advocate at the at the St. Petersburg Police Department. "I think the key is being honest with people. They want closure."

Victims' advocates act as a sort of guide through the system. They often attend court hearings, even when families can't.

Many insist on coming to every hearing, even if they have to drive long distances or even fly from out of state. Bright recalled one victim's mother who drove from Orlando to Pinellas for a scheduled trial, only to have it delayed.

The woman, Bright said, missed her father's funeral, which was on the same day.

"It was awful," Bright said. "I tried to comfort her as best I could."

Brown's 21-year-old son, Cabretti Wheeler, and his friend, Kyle Lynn Ellis, 24, were shot and killed in September 2008 at a Lealman building that housed a music studio and auto repair shop.

Three years passed without an arrest. In 2011, Jerry Jones, 23, was charged with double homicide and the attempted murder of a third man who survived the shooting.

Jones was first scheduled to go to trial last November. A judge delayed the trial until April after defense attorneys said they needed more time for a witness.

Just days ago, Brown was told a defense expert can't make it to court because of a vacation.

The judge has set a new trial date: June 25.

"I'm ready to get it over with," Brown said. "The guy was arrested two years ago. Let's do it."

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