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Jury delays decision in Rachel Hoffman murder case

TALLAHASSEE — Before the jury left the courtroom Tuesday, two images of Rachel Hoffman were put on a big screen.

In the first, the 23-year-old Clearwater native showed an easy smile that revealed her effervescent, care-free spirit. In the second, her body lay askew, covered by her beloved Grateful Dead sweatshirt, at the bottom of a ditch along a rural road.

"They left her rotting on the side of the road like a piece of garbage," prosecutor Georgia Cappleman told jurors.

But the complicated first-degree murder case stymied jurors. Just before 10 p.m., after nearly nine hours of deliberation, Circuit Judge Mark Walker told them to break for the day, sending them to a local hotel where they were sequestered.

The case is being closely watched after Hoffman's death spurred a national discussion about the use of police informants and prompted a new state law, the first in the nation, which established safeguards that law enforcement agencies must meet when conducting such operations.

The jury will resume work today as it determines whether to hold Deneilo Bradshaw, 24, responsible for Hoffman's death, even if he didn't pull the trigger. The defense argued he is only guilty of taking the drug money. But under Florida law, a principle to first-degree murder and armed robbery can face the same punishment as the shooter. Prosecutors readily admit they can't prove who pulled the trigger but said it doesn't matter.

"This man is as responsible for the death of Rachel Hoffman as if we had a video of him pulling the trigger," Cappleman argued.

Bradshaw's co-defendant and brother-in-law, Andrea Green, 27, will face trial next year.

• • •

Hoffman graduated from Countryside High School before coming to Tallahassee to attend Florida State University, where she majored in psychology, her father's field.

She said she wanted to go to culinary school in Arizona and loved watching the Food Network. But a marijuana possession arrest in February 2007 kept her put as she attended a court-ordered drug intervention program that spared her from jail.

According to evidence and testimony presented during the three-week trial, Hoffman broke her promise to stay drug-free. Two months after her arrest, Tallahassee police officers raided her apartment and found a quarter-pound of marijuana, six ecstasy pills and a ledger of names and amounts. The narcotics officer gave her an option: work as a confidential informant and she wouldn't get busted.

Hoffman knew the lingo of the drug world — asking for "beans" (ecstasy) and "fire" (a gun) — but it didn't take long to realize she was naive, too. She revealed her confidential status to one of her marijuana-dealing friends instead of reporting him. Then, without police knowledge, she had the friend contact Bradshaw and Green to set up a deal.

Authorities ignored the red flags and arranged the meeting for just after 6 p.m. May 7, 2008. Her handler, investigator Ryan Pender, gave her $13,000 to buy 1,500 ecstasy pills, 3 ounces of cocaine and a gun. "I'm a little Jewish girl," she told Bradshaw in a previously recorded conversation. "I need to be safe."

The investigator put a listening device in her silver 2005 Volvo S40 and drove behind her as she neared her buy location, Forestmeadows Park, north of Interstate 10 in Leon County.

About 20 officers — including DEA agents in a helicopter — circled the area near the park. But they lost her when the two men changed the meeting location. She followed them to a dead-end road. On the way, her handler screamed into his phone "Turn around! Do not follow them!" but the phone disconnected.

"I have no idea where I am," she said, the last words recorded before her wire went static.

• • •

What happened at the end of the road is unclear. Defense attorneys put two jailhouse snitches on the stand who said Green confessed to shooting Hoffman behind the wheel of her car.

But Assistant State Attorney Frank Allman disputed the testimony in his closing argument.

"It doesn't matter who pulled the trigger," he argued.

Evidence showed Hoffman was shot twice in the torso from the passenger side of the car. The gun jammed at some point.

But she was alive when the shooter came to the driver's side and fired three more times into her head. Two bullets went through her wrist and fingers as she tried to protect herself.

Authorities tracked Green and Bradshaw to nearby Perry where they used cash to buy orange sodas and bleach to clean the blood from Hoffman's car. A friend then drove them to Orlando where they spent more than $750 buying clothes, jewelry and shoes with the marked dollar bills police gave Hoffman. Authorities arrested them in a Macy's parking lot.

The investigation showed the men never brought drugs to the meeting.

Thirty-six hours after Hoffman disappeared, Bradshaw led authorities to her body in Taylor County.

• • •

Bradshaw's attorney emphasized in his closing argument that Green killed Hoffman and that Bradshaw was a bystander guilty only of stealing the drug money.

He said Green, a felon, is the one who had Hoffman's blood on his shoe, the one who had her ID and debit card in his pocket and the one who asked relatives to ditch her car.

"Green had the gun," said defense attorney Clyde Taylor. "Green pumped five bullets into the body of Rachel Hoffman, and Green was threatening (Bradshaw) with the same fate."

Taylor made no apologies as he sought to depict Hoffman as a major drug dealer who schemed to spare herself more trouble.

Taylor also interjected a new theory: Hoffman confessed to Green she was an informant, which led Green to "flip out" and shoot her.

In rebuttal, prosecutors pointed the finger at Bradshaw, citing evidence. He set up the deal. He stole the small handgun. And he bought bleach to clean the car.

• • •

Even though the trial's testimony aimed to convict Bradshaw, the defense and prosecution often faulted Tallahassee police officers and DEA agents in Hoffman's death.

"She was a free spirit and trusted people," Cappleman, the prosecutor, told jurors. "She trusted the police to protect her and they failed her."

A review by the Florida Attorney General's Office found more than 30 potential policy violations. The fallout led to the firing of Pender, Hoffman's handler, the suspension of four officers and reprimand of the chief of police.

Hoffman's parents, Irv Hoffman and Margie Weiss of Pinellas County, filed a wrongful death suit against the city, which is pending. They also led a successful crusade for the creation of "Rachel's Law."

Her parents came to Tallahassee to attend the trial and represent their daughter. Irv Hoffman wanted the jurors to see him.

John Frank can be reached at jfrank@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Jury delays decision in Rachel Hoffman murder case 12/15/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 15, 2009 11:34pm]
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