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Jurors get confusing picture in Hernando murder trial

James Ray Booth listens as defense attorney Patricia Jenkins questions potential jurors Monday at his trial.

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times

James Ray Booth listens as defense attorney Patricia Jenkins questions potential jurors Monday at his trial.

BROOKSVILLE — He wears silver-rimmed glasses, a pinstripe suit and a snow-white handlebar mustache.

Sitting between his defense attorneys, James Ray Booth observes his trial this week with a mostly distant, emotionless gaze.

As jurors heard about drug deals, crack heads and murder during testimony Tuesday, the avuncular Booth, 58, drew many wayward stares.

The four women and two men on the panel seem to want to ask, "Is that man at the defense table the same one witnesses are talking about?"

This is a case when a crime lacks a sympathetic victim or highly regarded witnesses. It makes the jury's perceptions even more important.

A jury hasn't heard a murder trial in Hernando County in quite some time. They are rare and this type of case is equally strange. Prosecutor Pete Magrino, a former Miami-area police officer, acknowledges privately it's more reminiscent of big-city crime.

Kenneth LaPointe Sr., 56, the man who was shot and killed on Oct. 21, 2006, lived at a known drug house on Canal Drive in DaMac Estates on the north side of Brooksville. He smoked crack cocaine and let others deal drugs from his kitchen. He was high when he died.

Jurors saw his lifeless body sprawled on the floor of his cluttered, dingy living room as they viewed video of the crime scene. A medical examiner later told them LaPointe died from a gunshot wound that went through his heart and out his back.

The single bullet was fired from a .22-caliber rifle during a struggle between Booth and another man, Thor Richmond, concerning a drug debt Booth owed. Booth faces life in prison if convicted on charges of first-degree murder, armed burglary and related felonies.

As is typical procedure, the jury won't learn about Booth's extensive criminal background, his years in prison for armed robbery, possessing firearms and robbery, nor his long history with drugs.

But if jurors are looking for someone else to blame — which is the hope and strategy of Booth's defense attorneys — they saw a man who fit the part when Richmond reluctantly took the stand Tuesday.

"This is a part of my life I'm trying to get past," Richmond said.

The 35-year-old transient is described by defense attorneys as a "crack head" with a temper who acted as the "muscle" for a drug-dealing friend. From the stand, Richmond adamantly denied this role.

But the image was clear. Richmond, 35, wore a tan jail uniform, tattoos and handcuffs. He elusively answered most questions and acknowledged being high at the time of the shooting.

Richmond faces an assortment of felony drug charges from a recent arrest unrelated to LaPointe's death.

Recounting the struggle that led to the rifle firing, Richmond said Booth provoked the fight by threatening to shoot him. "I was shouting, 'Help me, help me,'" Richmond told jurors.

He said he blamed himself for LaPointe's death. "I should have just stayed where I was seated and let him shoot me," Richmond said.

In defense attorney Tricia Jenkins' cross-examination, Richmond's version of events crumbled through contradiction and failed memory.

Richmond's statements highlighted a long day of testimony. Court began just after 8 a.m. and continued to 7 p.m. The last witness, Detective James Boylan from the Hernando County Sheriff's Office, played a videotaped interview with Booth from the day of the shooting.

The video brought Booth to life for jurors, showing how his story evolved during the interview, but it's largely exculpatory because he maintains his innocence throughout. "He was shot accidentally if he was shot," Booth said of LaPointe.

The prosecution concluded its case after the video and Booth's defense team takes the stage today.

John Frank can be reached at jfrank@sptimes.com or (352) 754-6114.

Jurors get confusing picture in Hernando murder trial 05/13/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 14, 2008 12:32pm]
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