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Jury still out in Zephyrhills rape case

Jathniel McMichael testifies in his own defense at Pasco County Courthouse Wednesday in Dade City.

EDWARD LINSMIER | Times

Jathniel McMichael testifies in his own defense at Pasco County Courthouse Wednesday in Dade City.

DADE CITY — The case terrorized a community for its brutality and randomness: two elderly women, alone in their homes, sexually battered and beaten. Two young men with no history of violence arrested.

The final chapter in the 2007 rapes of two Zephyrhills women rested in the hands of a jury Wednesday night, as they considered the last round of charges against the last defendant.

Jathniel McMichael was charged with home invasion robbery, kidnapping, sexual battery, aggravated battery on a person 65 or older and grand theft motor vehicle. A jury deliberated into the night after hearing the evidence and listening to the victims retell their horror in the 31/2 year old case.

McMichael, 21, was convicted in May in the attack on the first victim. He faces life in prison if convicted in the second assault.

His friend Bobby Lee Black III, 22, was tried and convicted in both cases last year and sentenced to life in prison.

Prosecutors said that in the spring of 2007, McMichael and Black broke into a 66-year-old woman's home on Gordon Street in Zephyrhills, held a knife to her throat, riffled through her belongings, and then took turns raping her. A third man, Andre Brathwaite, is accused of driving the car that night but not of participating in the rape.

Three weeks later, a 68-year-old woman in another Zephyrhills mobile home park awoke to two masked men breaking in. They punched her when she tried to call 911, then put her in her minivan and drove to her bank ATM. Along the way, Black raped her while McMichael drove, authorities said. He was charged as a "principal" to the rape, meaning because he was present and facilitated the attack, it was as if he committed the act himself.

Finally, prosecutors said the two took the woman to a watery quarry, threw her in and pushed her van in after her. She managed to climb out and get help.

Both victims testified this week, the fourth time they told their stories to a jury. They are not being identified because of the nature of the crime.

The first woman said one of her attackers kicked her in the face before he left. The second woman said they treated her like a ragdoll.

Jurors heard a taped interview between McMichael and two detectives at the Pasco County jail after he was arrested on marijuana possession charges. At first, McMichael denied involvement. But then, under high-pressure questioning, he began describing details of the crimes: how he and Black broke in, the fact that they used condoms.

McMichael took the stand Wednesday and said he was in the process of being released from jail when the detectives intercepted him in the booking area. When they took him to an interview room and began questioning him, he said he was scared and thought he had no choice but to talk.

"I was trying to tell them the truth, and they weren't listening to me," McMichael said.

Then, he said, he decided to tell them what he thought they wanted to hear so he could go home. He said he learned the details of the crime from talking to Black and Brathwaite.

Scott Davis, McMichael's attorney, told jurors they should disregard what McMichael said in the interview because it was given under duress.

"They're (the detectives) telling Mr. McMichael what happened and they're trying to coerce him into agreeing with it," Davis said.

But Assistant State Attorney Manny Garcia challenged the level of detail McMichael knew, like how the woman's purse was tossed in an outside trash can and the color of the clothes the attackers wore.

"Is it plausible that he would give such extreme details in both of these cases?" Garcia asked. "Only a person that committed the crime is going to know those answers."

Molly Moorhead can be reached at moorhead@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6245.

Jury still out in Zephyrhills rape case 08/18/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 18, 2010 8:55pm]
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