BROOKSVILLE — Stanley Elias Eckard has always said he didn't mean to kill his brother three summers ago before burying him in the family's yard.
A jury on Friday agreed that Eckard didn't plan the killing of 19-year-old Sean, but jurors did not completely absolve him of guilt. After deliberating for about 2½ hours, nine women and three men convicted Eckard of second-degree murder.
Eckard had been charged with first-degree premeditated murder, and he faced a mandatory sentence of life in prison if convicted on that charge.
Now Eckard's fate is in the hands of Circuit Judge Anthony Tatti, who presided over the five-day trial. Second-degree murder is punishable by up to life in prison. Sentencing is set for May 13.
Prior to the trial, Eckard rejected an offer by prosecutors to plead guilty to second-degree murder in exchange for capping his prison sentence at 20 years.
Eckard remained stonefaced when the clerk read the verdict. The brothers' parents, Samuel and Donna, began to quietly weep. When the jury left the courtroom, Samuel Eckard's sobs turned to wails as family members huddled around the couple.
All along, the Eckards have said they believed Stanley's account of what happened in the early morning of June 19, 2010, and they have criticized the State Attorney's Office for pursuing a murder charge.
Later Friday, Samuel Eckard said Chief Assistant Public Defender Alan Fanter did an excellent job. The family questioned the expediency of the verdict.
"I really can't understand how jurors came up with the verdict of second-degree murder in approximately two hours because of the amount of evidence they had to discuss to make that decision," Samuel Eckard said.
"Even so," he said, "our faith has not been shaken."
One fact was not disputed during the trial: After Sean died, Stanley hoisted his body out of Sean's bedroom window and buried him in a shallow grave in the side yard of the family's Spring Hill home. Samuel Eckard found Sean's body two days later.
Assistant State Attorney Pete Magrino started his closing arguments Friday by showing the jury photos of Sean's dirt-caked body lying in a fetal position in the hole.
"This is not a whodunit case," Magrino said.
He noted that Stanley, during questioning by detectives the day his brother's body was found, changed his story as many as half a dozen times, claiming first that he knew nothing about Sean's death.
In the two days after burying his brother, Magrino said, Stanley sent texts from Sean's phone to family members saying his brother had left for California, and to Sean's girlfriend, Samantha Rowe, telling her Sean was breaking up with her.
After hours of interrogation, Stanley said Sean died during a struggle in the bedroom that morning. He claimed he heard a pop in his brother's neck as the two men fell to the floor, and that he hid Sean's body to protect his mother, Donna, who has a weak heart, from the shock of the news. He said he planned to tell his father after his mother left for a trip.
A medical examiner testified that Sean died from blunt force trauma to the back of the head and neck.
"Those injuries, inflicted by the defendant by his hands, is murder," Magrino said.
Magrino highlighted witness testimony and Stanley's own statements to detectives about simmering tension over Rowe. And he noted testimony about a conversation Stanley had with his brother and a friend about revenge several weeks before Sean's death. In that conversation, the friend testified, Stanley said if he were going to kill someone, he'd hit the person on the back of the head and bury the body in the yard.
That evidence was flimsy at best and failed to dispel reasonable doubt, Fanter told the jury.
"Killing implies an act with an intended result," Fanter said. "He's involved in the death of his brother, yes, but he did not kill his brother."
Fanter noted testimony from a forensic pathologist who said that a blow to the head combined with other factors — Sean's high blood-alcohol content and possible lingering brain swelling from encephalitis — likely resulted in his death. The pathologist testified that hitting his head on a night stand in the bedroom as the two men fell could have been enough to kill Sean.
Fanter reminded jurors of testimony from Donna Eckard, who said Sean was always the more aggressive son and that he suffered wild mood swings after the encephalitis. At one point in her testimony, Donna Eckard referred to Sean's death as "the accident."
The jury also could have found Stanley Eckard guilty of third-degree murder or manslaughter. Calling the case excusable homicide, Fanter asked jurors not to let the gruesome photos of Sean's body — and Stanley's bad decision to bury him in the yard — distract them from what led to his death.
"Stanley Eckard did something horrible after Sean died," Fanter said, "but he's not a killer."
Reach Tony Marrero at [email protected] or (352) 848-1431. Follow @tmarrerotimes on Twitter.