Jury finds Onstott guilty of second-degree murder

TAMPA — They didn't hear David Lee Onstott confess to detectives, but 12 jurors heard enough to convict the registered sex offender Thursday of murdering a 13-year-old Ruskin girl.

Jurors found Onstott guilty of second-degree murder in the April 2005 death of Sarah Michelle Lunde — a lesser charge than the first-degree murder verdict prosecutors had sought.

But given the lack of physical and forensic evidence, the thrown-out confession and nearly 13 hours of jury deliberation, the trial outcome made Sarah's mother smile.

"It's over," Kelly May said.

Jurors also found Onstott guilty of battery, a lesser charge than the attempted sexual battery he faced.

Onstott, 40, will be sentenced at 10 a.m. today. He still faces up to life in prison, though it is not a mandatory punishment.

Sarah was last seen at her home on April 9, 2005. Her body was found a week later on an abandoned fish farm near her home.

Prosecutors argued that Onstott had gone to Sarah's home to have sex with her mother. May wasn't there, and Onstott ended up struggling with Sarah and putting her in a chokehold, they said. She died of crushing blows to the head.

Defense attorneys said the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office conducted a shoddy investigation and arrested the wrong man.

The trial began Aug. 11. A jury of nine women and three men started deliberating Wednesday afternoon, then spent most of Thursday huddled together in a guarded room.

Courtroom 12 filled quickly when word of a verdict came, a hushed crowd of prosecutors on one side, public defenders on the other.

Their respective elected leaders joined them. Hillsborough State Attorney Mark Ober sat with May in the front row; Hillsborough Public Defender Julianne Holt also was in the gallery.

The clerk stood to announce Onstott's fate at 5:10 p.m.

"As to count one of the charge," the clerk said, pausing to turn the page, "the defendant is guilty of the lesser included offense of second-degree murder."

His jaw set firm, Onstott showed no expression.

Later, May said she had felt like she was going to pass out before those words were read. She had believed the jury would hold Onstott responsible for Sarah's death, she said, but the guilty verdict brought relief all the same.

She plans to speak at his sentencing today.

"I hope that every day he wakes up it's the same hell that we've gone through for the last three years," May said. "Every day."

Jurors declined to comment to reporters after the verdict and gave few hints of their leanings during the deliberation process. They had asked for surgical gloves, audio equipment and headphones, the latter two items requested to listen again to a secretly recorded jailhouse conversation between Onstott and his mother.

Prosecutors said Onstott whispered "I killed her" to his mother. The assistant public defender called that interpretation "wishful thinking."

The jury's long deliberation confirmed what many people already knew about the case: It wasn't a slam dunk for the state.

Prosecutors weren't allowed to let jurors hear Onstott confess to detectives on the day Sarah's body was found. Hillsborough Circuit Judge Ronald Ficarrotta excluded the crucial evidence last year on the grounds that detectives who interrogated Onstott for five days after Sarah's disappearance ignored his multiple requests for an attorney.

But the state still had incriminating circumstantial evidence.

Sarah's teenage brother and his friend, who left Sarah alone around midnight and returned a few hours later to find her gone, testified that Onstott knocked on the Lunde's door about 5 a.m. The older man's jeans were wet from the shins down, and he stepped into the house to grab a beer bottle off a table, the teens said.

Months later, in a jailhouse phone conversation, Onstott told his estranged wife that he had "broken every commandment now."

A jail guard testified that Onstott described putting Sarah in a chokehold, and remembered her breathing and gasping for air. Onstott said he then blacked out.

No forensic evidence proved an attempted sexual assault against Sarah, but prosecutors argued that her bare lower body and her bra and shirt pushed up around her neck indicated such a crime.

A defense expert suggested that the bra may have shifted as Sarah's body swelled during decomposition.

By Thursday evening, it didn't seem to matter. May left the courthouse satisfied that a long prison sentence awaits her daughter's killer.

"He can't hurt anyone else," she said. "It's a good day."

Colleen Jenkins can be reached at cjenkins@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3337.

Jury finds Onstott guilty of second-degree murder 08/21/08 [Last modified: Saturday, August 23, 2008 11:19am]

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