TAMPA — Prosecutors did not need to prove Charles Waits pulled the trigger on two defenseless teenagers, killing them execution-style in their South Tampa home, in order for jurors to find him guilty of first-degree felony murder.
Prosecutors needed only to prove he was at the children's home at the time, robbing them early the morning of June 5, 2011,
And they did.
After deliberating 21/2 hours Tuesday afternoon, 12 jurors found Waits guilty of two counts of murder in the deaths of Kiara Brito, 16, and her brother, Jeremi, 13. They also found him guilty of two counts of armed robbery and one count of armed burglary.
The only possible sentence for first-degree murder is life in prison without parole.
The slain children's mother, Judy Brito, grabbed a victim's advocate and loudly sobbed. Her cries grew louder as bailiffs walked Waits from the courtroom. Outside the courthouse, she thanked the assistant state attorney, then continued crying.
"He's guilty! He's guilty!" she yelled on the street.
Waits was 19 at the time of the killings, and he was with his good friend Tavari Grant, now 21, both the defense and prosecution agreed.
In his first interview with detectives, Waits had denied he was with Grant, instead saying he was forced at gunpoint to participate in the robbery by a man named "Rocco."
Authorities never found Rocco. On Monday, Waits testified that the story about Rocco was a lie. He said he had lied to detectives because he was afraid. Grant — the shooter — had threatened to kill him, his mother and brothers if he told authorities, he testified.
But Waits said the part about being forced at gunpoint was still true. He said he saw "evil" in Grant's eyes.
In closing arguments Tuesday morning, Assistant State Attorney Michelle Doherty focused on Waits' initial lie, and she said his untruths went further.
Waits was not under "duress" or forced to help in the robbery as the defense alleged, Doherty said.
"This was a planned robbery," Doherty said. "They went in there with firearms, both of them, and they immediately shot off warning shots."
Grant's gun was later found under his mattress, and it was not the one used in the murder. Instead, the one used in the killings was a handgun Waits had been seen with months earlier, authorities said.
Detectives found that gun a couple of weeks after the murders in a tree next door to Waits' close friend Darryl Hernandez's house — a house that Waits twice visited the day after the murders, the prosecutor said.
Waits' attorney, Octavio Gomez, said it was all circumstantial evidence. Waits did not hide the gun, and no one proved that it was indeed Waits' gun.
In his closing argument, Gomez said common sense — and a lack of evidence — proved that Waits did not kill the children or chose to join in the robbery.
Why would Waits kill Kiara, a girl he liked, who was nice to him? Gomez asked. And why would he kill Jeremi, a little boy who reminded Waits of his own brother?
Also, Waits was spotted earlier that night in a neon green shirt and says he wore that — and no mask or gloves — to the Brito home in South Tampa. He clearly was not prepared for a robbery, Gomez said.
The attorney urged jurors to keep their emotions in check. It was a brutal, bloody murder, he said.
"You have every right to be angry; you have every right to be sad," Gomez said. "But you can't base this case on those feelings."
Jurors had the option of convicting Waits of premeditated murder, but they did not go that far. Instead, they chose the felony murder charge, which means that the children died as a result of the robbery, in which Waits was participating at the time.
When Grant's trial starts later this month, that jury could potentially find him guilty of first-degree murder — even though detectives believe all the bullets fired at the scene came from one gun.
Waits will be sentenced Nov. 22.
Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3433.