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Jury begins deliberating in case of shooting that killed 8-year-old St. Petersburg girl

Prosecutor Doneene Dresback Loar shows the jury one of the assault rifles used the night Paris Whitehead-Hamilton was killed and one of the bullet casings found at the scene. Next to her is a diagram showing where bullet casings were found.

SCOTT KEELER | Times

Prosecutor Doneene Dresback Loar shows the jury one of the assault rifles used the night Paris Whitehead-Hamilton was killed and one of the bullet casings found at the scene. Next to her is a diagram showing where bullet casings were found.

LARGO — Two and a half years after a gang shooting killed an 8-year-old girl and outraged St. Petersburg, prosecutor Doneene Dresback Loar stood before jurors with an assault rifle in one hand and a bullet in the other and told them to make a choice.

She told them a bullet like the one between her fingers hit Paris Whitehead-Hamilton and "struck her in the heart," fractured inside her and caused "life-ending damage to her little 8-year-old body."

That's the tragedy that came out of four men's botched plan to kill a rival gang member, she said. And that, she said, is why jurors should decide the three men on trial — even the one who may not even have fired a gun — are guilty of first-degree murder.

The jurors spent two hours deliberating the case Tuesday night before retiring for the day. They will resume their deliberations this morning, but for them it's not a simple story.

The jurors, on the day before Thanksgiving, have to sort out the cases of three different defendants, who have three different amounts of evidence against them, and by any account, different levels of involvement in the killing.

And though all three accused men chose not to testify in their own defense, Tuesday was a day for the defense attorneys to strike back in closing arguments.

Prosecutors have said Dondre Davis, Stephen Cortez Harper, Duong Dai Nguyen — all who are now 21 — and a fourth man were aligned with a neighborhood gang called the Bethel Heights Boys and were angry because someone from a rival gang called 8-Hype had shot in their direction.

In April 2009, they drove to a house on Preston Avenue to find the man nicknamed "Monster," who they believed had shot at them, prosecutors said. They wanted to kill Monster, according to the fourth man in the group, Mario Lewis Walls, 21, who testified against the other three.

Walls said when the four arrived at the house, they circled once, and then Davis said to stop. He and Nguyen got out and used assault rifles to fire 56 rounds into the house, Walls said. Monster was not hit, but Paris was struck by one bullet and died.

But two of the defense attorneys said their clients were not even present when the shooting took place.

The state maintains these two — Davis and Nguyen — are the ones who actually fired the AR-15 assault rifles.

The other defense attorney, representing Harper, took a different tack.

Attorney Keith Hammond said Harper was perhaps guilty of manslaughter or third-degree murder, but was not guilty of first-degree murder.

"He didn't get out of the car, he didn't have a gun, his actions don't arise to that level," Hammond said.

Davis' attorney, Edward Panzica, said there was "not enough evidence to prove that Dondre Davis was in the car at the time of the shooting nor that he took part in the shooting itself."

Yes, Davis' fingerprints were found on the hood of the car used in the shooting and on an air freshener can inside it; but testimony indicated that this was a "buddy car" used by a lot of people in the neighborhood, Panzica said.

"Of course his fingerprints were on the car," Panzica said, because Davis had access to the car "each and every day."

He and Michael O'Haire, the attorney for Nguyen, attacked the credibility of Walls, whom they called the state's star witness, and whom they said had motive to lie to get a better deal from prosecutors.

O'Haire suggested that Walls implicated Nguyen as the shooter because, although he hung around the Bethel Heights area, he was a relative newcomer.

Jury begins deliberating in case of shooting that killed 8-year-old St. Petersburg girl 11/22/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 22, 2011 11:19pm]
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