SPRING HILL — Samuel Eckard knelt in his yard and used his bare hands to frantically scoop dirt from a disturbed patch of earth.
He didn't want to find his 19-year-old son, Sean Eckard, buried in a shallow grave, but he did.
He didn't want to believe that his other son, Stanley Eckard, had put him there. But he had.
Nearly three years later, with one son dead, Samuel and Donna Eckard will soon learn the other son's fate.
Charged with first-degree murder, Stanley Eckard will appear in Hernando Circuit Court today with a chance to admit he committed second-degree murder, his parents say; if he does, he'll spend no more than 20 years in prison.
Or he can decide to go to a trial that is scheduled to start Monday, his 24th birthday. A conviction would mean a mandatory life sentence.
This week, in their first interview since Stanley's arrest, the Eckards said Sean was the victim of an accident, not premeditated murder. They acknowledge Stanley made a horrible decision to hide Sean's body, but they are convinced he did not mean to kill his brother.
"My wife and I know the children we've raised, and none of them have hatred in their hearts," said Samuel Eckard, 66. "It's an injustice when a family suffers a tragedy and loses a son from an accident, and the law wants to take our other son's freedom, and him from us."
Assistant State Attorney Pete Magrino declined to comment on the case except to point out that a grand jury decided evidence warranted the charge.
Eckard's attorney, Assistant Public Defender Alan Fanter, also declined to comment Tuesday.
According to court records, Stanley Eckard told investigators he broke into his brother's locked bedroom in the family's former home on Peoria Street in Spring Hill early in the morning on June 19, 2010. The two struggled, and Stanley said he wrapped an elastic cord around Sean's neck.
They fell to the floor, and Stanley said he heard Sean's neck pop and felt his body go limp.
"I had no intentions of killing him," Stanley told investigators. "I was just in a fight with him."
Stanley then hoisted his brother's body through the bedroom window and buried him in the side yard.
Samuel Eckard found Sean two days later. The medical examiner concluded he had died from either a fracture to the back of his skull, or broken vertebrae, or both.
Two days before Sean's death, Stanley found out that he was seeing a woman both men had known for years. Stanley later told investigators he was angry at Sean for flaunting the relationship.
After Sean's death, according to court records, Stanley texted the woman from his brother's cellphone, saying he wanted to break up. Then Stanley called the woman from his own phone and said that Sean had left for California and that they could now be together.
The Eckards, who have six children from previous marriages, say the brothers argued sometimes but were inseparable growing up and loved each other. In 2008, they say, Stanley helped Sean recover from a severe illness that left him comatose for six days.
But Stanley also thought Sean's girlfriend wasn't serious about him, and tried to tell this to his brother.
"He said some pretty crude things about her, and this upset Sean and he just snapped," Samuel Eckard said.
Samuel Eckard said he thinks Stanley was in shock when he buried his brother. He said he believes Stanley when he said he planned to tell his father what happened once his mother, who has a weak heart, left for a trip.
"He was afraid he was going to be the reason for two family members dying," Samuel said.
He thinks Stanley wasn't really interested in Sean's girlfriend, and that he only reached out to her after Sean's death to confirm his suspicions about her.
Samuel Eckard is a custodian at a local church and Donna Eckard, 58, cleans houses. They now live in another rental home in Spring Hill.
They wish they could have afforded a private attorney for Stanley. They say he is scared and unsure what to do.
"We tell him to pray a lot and read his Bible," his father said. "Our only hope is God will intervene and move people's hearts and minds to do what's right."
He is already enduring a punishment worse than prison, Donna Eckard said.
"His baby brother's been by him all of his days," she said, choking back tears, "and now he's not going to be there."
Reach Tony Marrero at [email protected] or (352) 848-1431.