TAMPA — A Tampa mother's unexpected testimony has temporarily derailed the trial of the man accused of killing her infant son and flinging him from a car on Interstate 275.
A judge declared a mistrial Tuesday in the murder case of Richard McTear, ruling that Jasmine Bedwell had poisoned proceedings in the newly launched trial by testifying that McTear threatened to shoot her son in the face and urinate on him.
The accusation — gasped out amid tears by the 22-year-old Bedwell soon after she took the stand as the state's key witness Monday afternoon — had originally emerged in a 2010 trial at which McTear was found not guilty of battering her.
Hillsborough Circuit Judge William Fuente ordered last year that the alleged threat should not come up at McTear's trial over the 2009 killing of 3-month-old Emanuel Murray Jr.
"The jurors heard testimony they should not have heard under any circumstances. In this court's conclusion, a mistrial is necessary," Fuente said Tuesday morning. "I'll say this: I do this with extreme reluctance. I'm not suggesting that any counsel did anything inappropriate."
McTear, 25, is charged with first-degree murder. Prosecutors say he attacked Bedwell, his then-girlfriend, and threw her baby across the room in May 2009. He then drove off with the child and threw him out the window on I-275 near Fowler Avenue, prosecutors say.
If convicted, McTear could be sentenced to death.
The mistrial ruling will require a new round of jury selection, which attorneys said would likely not happen before December. McTear will remain in jail as he awaits a new trial.
On Monday, Assistant State Attorney Ron Gale had asked Bedwell about phone calls from McTear the day before Emanuel's death. Bedwell said McTear had called her and "told me that he was going to come over and shoot my baby in the face and p--- on him, in his face, and he was going to kill both of us."
Assistant Public Defender Mike Peacock immediately asked the judge to declare a mistrial, pointing to the court's previous order that the accusation was not admissible.
Gale acknowledged Bedwell's testimony was "clearly … a violation" of the order but said he had not expected her to refer to the March 2009 phone call, which took place about six weeks before Emanuel's death.
On Tuesday morning, Gale told Fuente he had not specifically told Bedwell in advance not to bring up the alleged threat.
"I did not instruct her during our preparation that 'you are not to say this specifically,' " Gale said. "It did not come up."
Gale revealed another twist that could have been problematic had the trial proceeded.
He said he had learned that Bedwell, while waiting to take the stand Monday at the State Attorney's Office, was receiving text messages from her current boyfriend.
That boyfriend: Emanuel Murray Sr., the baby's father, who was in prison on gun charges when his son died.
While watching the trial Monday, he began firing off "angry" texts to Bedwell when he learned from testimony that she had conducted a sexual relationship with another man besides McTear while Murray was incarcerated.
Gale said the texts might have violated court rules about witnesses not being exposed to other witnesses' testimony.
Bedwell was not present in court Tuesday.
The Hillsborough State Attorney's Office declined to comment on the mistrial ruling.
Bob Dekle, a professor at the University of Florida Levin College of Law, said unplanned testimony happens more than lawyers would like.
In death penalty cases such as McTear's, Dekle said, judges are particularly cautious about ensuring proper trial procedure, since convictions are intensively reviewed on appeal.
"Things that would not even provoke a yawn at the appellate level in a grand larceny case will get you a reversal in a death penalty case," he said.
Public Defender Julianne Holt praised the steps Fuente had taken to ensure a fair trial.
"Although he expressed reluctance, I think we all understand that here, in this country, a fair trial is paramount," Holt said. "We need to, I think, greatly respect the fact that the judge had the courage to do what he did today."
Juror Lori Reyes of Tampa said that the ruling was frustrating in light of the time she had devoted to the trial but that Bedwell's statement would have been "very difficult" to ignore.
"When I first heard that, the first thing that went through my mind was 'premeditated,' " she said, referring to the premeditated murder charge against McTear.
Staff photojournalist Joseph Garnett Jr. contributed to this report. Peter Jamison can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3337. Follow him on Twitter @petejamison.