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Hernando hit-run jury swung swiftly to not guilty

BROOKSVILLE — The jurors in the trial of Jason Blair began deliberations on Tuesday with a nearly unanimous verdict: guilty.

But they emerged two hours later with a much different result: not guilty.

The jury found that Blair's fear in those dark early morning hours on State Road 50 permitted him to leave the scene of the accident that led to the death of Anthony Morales in February 2008.

What happened in those two hours as the jury met privately over a lunch from Luigi's Pizza began to surface in subsequent interviews with four of the six jurors.

It's a story about how one juror can wield great influence, and in the process change the lives of two families.

• • •

The door to the jury room closed behind the four women and two men. They took a straw poll to gauge the mood. Five of the six jurors thought Blair was guilty.

"I thought he was guilty as hell," David Stitz, a 42-year-old truck driver, said his Spring Hill home Wednesday.

They didn't buy Blair's argument that he fled in fear, a legally justifiable reason for leaving the scene.

The rare legal argument confused jurors. Prosecutor Don Barbee suggested that Blair's father, a former Florida Highway Patrol trooper, told his son what to say in a phone call before his arrest. He called it a "defense of convenience." Stitz and other jurors agreed.

"I can't get it out of my head — why call Daddy if Daddy didn't know the laws like he did," said juror Lorraine Jondro of Spring Hill.

The lone voice of dissent came from Joyce Livingston, a 55-year-old Brooksville resident, jurors said.

"I had already made up my mind when we got in there," she said. "He did stop to offer assistance and he felt threatened — that was the turning point for me."

Two relatives who were walking with Morales just after midnight Feb. 18 testified that Blair didn't stop or slow down. She didn't believe them. "They didn't remember much of the things you think they would remember in a situation like that," she said.

Livingston began arguing emotionally on Blair's behalf, jurors said.

She made the case that — as the defense attorney asserted — it didn't matter legally that Blair didn't call 911, didn't stop at the nearby Sheriff's Office and instead drove to his father's house.

She reminded them that Blair heard screaming and someone say, "I'm going to kill you."

She told jurors to put themselves in Blair's shoes.

It sparked a question in Stitz's mind that made him change his position: "How do I know that the man wasn't scared?"

The law for a "defense of necessity" case requires only the perception of fear but suggests it must be imminent and reasonable.

"She made me see some different things I wasn't looking at," Stitz said. "She swayed us to not guilty."

It worked on juror Jack Thomson, too. The 28-year-old Spring Hill resident said "everyone knew exactly what was going on," but they didn't think they had enough information.

"Both side had good points," he said. But the prosecution "couldn't prove he didn't have fear."

• • •

The verdict worries Barbee, the lead prosecutor in the Hernando State Attorney's Office. He said he doesn't know what effect it could have on the prosecution of future cases.

"All a guy has to do is say, 'I was scared,' " Barbee said.

The verdict never sat well with Stitz. He said "something didn't feel right" as he drove home from the courthouse.

He and other jurors said they were dismayed when they learned afterward about Blair's troubling driving record and the possibility drugs were in his system at the time of the accident. This is what they feared they didn't know.

"I normally don't let people change my mind," he said, sitting in a front porch at his home.

He asked a reporter to pass along a message. "Tell the Morales family that I'm, you know…" he said.

"That I'm sorry."

Reach John Frank at jfrank@sptimes.com or (352) 754-6114.

Hernando hit-run jury swung swiftly to not guilty 02/04/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 4, 2009 7:52pm]
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