BROOKSVILLE — A flawed Hernando County Sheriff's Office investigation led a jury Tuesday to acquit a Spring Hill man of drug charges.
Two jurors who listened to the sale and possession of cocaine case against Willie Lee Waddy Jr. told prosecutors afterward that they believed he was guilty.
But discrepancies and gaps in the evidence prompted them to issue a not guilty verdict after 40 minutes of deliberation.
"The evidence just wasn't there," said Jean Velsor, a 30-year-old from Spring Hill who weighed the case during the two-day trial. "You never saw him with the drugs in his hands … or money exchanging hands."
"He was guilty as hell and we knew it," another juror, who declined to give his name, told a prosecutor moments after the decision.
Waddy's attorney, former Hernando County Judge Peyton Hyslop, highlighted a litany of problems with the investigation in his closing argument. He even suggested that the case against his client was fabricated, though at least two of the six jurors didn't believe that was true.
Assistant State Attorney Tim Barrett relied heavily on the testimony of a confidential informant, who was previously arrested for drug possession but agreed to participate in the drug sting and testify if his charges were dropped.
Barrett acknowledged a few holes in the investigation, but told jurors in his closing statement that he felt confident the testimony of a confidential informant and deputies was enough for a conviction.
"Obviously, we were disappointed with the verdict," Barrett said outside the courtroom, where a number of local attorneys gathered to watch the trial and verdict. "You don't always have a perfect case, but you do with what you have."
Sheriff's deputies arrested Waddy in October 2007 after an extensive undercover operation. An arrest report, contested by his attorney, states he sold a $50 piece of crack cocaine, about 0.5 grams, to a confidential information in the parking lot of Hungry Howie's Pizza on Spring Hill Drive.
The Sheriff's Office had staked out the location, positioning a plainclothes deputy inside the restaurant and another across the street taking pictures. But both failed to see Waddy make the hand-to-hand exchange with the confidential informant. Deputies never made an arrest that day, even though they followed the vehicle Waddy was riding in.
Hyslop told the three men and three women on the jury that investigators had "no real evidence." He even noted that the deputies began writing the arrest report days before the arrest. "They already decided what was going to happen that day," Hyslop said.
Waddy initially faced two additional drug charges, sale of cocaine and possession of cocaine within 1,000 feet of a child care center, but Circuit Judge Stephen Rushing dismissed them Tuesday after prosecutors made a mistake and failed to adequately establish that the day care center met the statutory requirements.
Waddy, who has a criminal record, served three years in prison on six drug charges until he was released in April 2006.
With his history as a habitual felony offender, all four charges could have put Waddy in prison for life. Even on the remaining two drug charges, he faced a maximum of 45 years behind bars.