Sunday, May 27, 2018
News Roundup

Jurors hear testimony in death penalty case for 2007 murder

TAMPA — Only hours after a jury began weighing the death penalty for convicted rapist and murderer Kenneth Ray Jackson, one juror told the judge she was overcome emotionally and begged to be excused. Testimony about Jackson's learning disabilities as a child reminded her too much of her youngest son. She couldn't take any more.

Voting for life or death is something no one can prepare for. The remaining 13 — 12 jurors and one alternate — began hearing a history of Jackson's entire life Thursday to help them decide. Today, they'll give their recommendation.

A week ago, they convicted him of the 2007 rape and murder of Cuc Thu Tran, 50, a Seffner mother of three whom Jackson attacked as she jogged past the St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church near her mobile home before dawn. He raped and fatally stabbed her there, then drove her body to Gibsonton in a stolen van, where he set the van on fire.

On Tuesday, Assistant State Attorney Scott Harmon told jurors that Jackson had planned every part, learned her jogging schedule, stolen the van because it had sliding doors and killed her because she lived near him and could identify him. Under the law, his actions met a required aggravating factor for the death penalty — "cold, calculated, premeditated murder."

Jackson's actions, Harmon said, met another aggravating factor — "heinous, atrocious and cruel."

But Assistant Public Defender Charles Traina said that how Jackson got that way — how he grew up to become a sexual predator and killer — was why he deserved a life sentence rather than death.

The defense presented teachers who taught Jackson almost two decades ago and psychologists to portray him as a friendless child abandoned by his mother, raised by a grandmother who set no boundaries — a wild, unreachable boy who eventually formed a full-blown antisocial personality disorder.

Rosemary Borden, his fifth-grade teacher in Gibsonton, remembered him as "the only student I ever had to Baker Act." She said he was taken to a crisis center after drawing a stick figure lying on a road. He wrote underneath "Kenny is dead. Kenny will die."

This was a boy, she said, who had come from Texas where he had been labeled emotionally disturbed and could read only on a first-grade level. He had an IQ of 75.

Psychologist Yolanda Leon, testifying for the defense, said Jackson told her he'd been "tortured" as a child by being ordered to strike a wood post with a baseball hat until his hands went numb.

She said he told her he had smoked marijuana since age 5.

But prosecutor Harmon suggested Jackson exaggerated stories of abuse. He said Jackson's grandmother loved him, and his mother stayed in his life.

Testimony concludes today. Then the jury will vote on a recommendation to Hillsborough Circuit Judge William Fuente. Their vote needn't be unanimous. By law, Fuente is required to give it "great weight."

John Barry can be reached at (813)226-3383 or [email protected]

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