TAMPA — A judge spared 12 jurors an all-nighter Tuesday, after they told him they weren't close to a verdict in a first-degree murder trial and wanted to go home and sleep on it.
The jurors deliberated four hours Tuesday over whether Eric James Tate, 23, killed Heather Romance, the 2-year-old Lutz girl he babysat in August 2006.
Closing arguments in the case highlighted complexities for both the prosecution and the defense that could have given the jurors plenty to sleep on.
The prosecution says Tate either threw or hit Heather, causing fatal brain injuries. It suggested he was angered when she wet the bed. It produced testimony from doctors who said that in 30 years they had never seen such serious injuries from a minor, accidental fall.
The defense says Heather fell off a sofa and hit her head on the floor. It produced a videotaped re-creation of that scenario using a toddler-sized crash-test dummy from Detroit. It also showed the jury a real-life video of an unnamed 2-year-old girl who died from brain injuries when she fell off a small play set in her family's garage. One expert said 20 to 30 children die every year from such falls.
In closing arguments, Assistant State Attorney Rita Peters urged the jurors to consider all the injuries to Heather, not just the fatal ones in her brain.
Those included bruises on her chin and neck, her forehead and her lower back and thigh. They included bleeding from her retinas and in the optic nerve area behind her eyes.
"The bruises are a road map to her death," Peters said.
In terms of motive, Peters said Tate was under heavy stress, unemployed and living off Heather's single mother, Amy Romance, who was pregnant.
"It only takes a spark to start a forest fire," Peters said.
But defense attorney Brian Gonzalez repeatedly emphasized lack of motive.
Tate, he said, is the son of a child-care provider. He has years of babysitting experience. "He's quiet, unassuming," Gonzalez said. "He has no history of abuse in a relationship."
Gonzalez told the jury his crash-test dummy tests and video of a real-life fatal accidental fall added up to "a totally plausible theory of innocence."
One thing the jury never heard about: a charge that Tate raped Heather, brought against Tate in 2006, then dropped last week. Unmentioned during the seven-day trial were reports from St. Joseph's Hospital of "recent genital trauma." A report by a Sheriff's Office child protection officer also noted "extensive" bruises and lacerations of the child's genitals.
The prosecution didn't explain why that wasn't part of the trial.
The jury resumes deliberations today in Circuit Judge William Fuente's court.
John Barry can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3383.