LARGO — After nearly three years of waiting, the families of David Heath and Jeff Shultz gathered in a courtroom to see a 21-year-old convicted of murdering both men.
To many of the family members, the twin guilty verdicts against Cordaro Hardin provided a moment of relief, but certainly not joy, in a case they believed had been wrongly characterized as St. Petersburg's "homeless murders."
The case will continue today, as the jury weighs whether to recommend the death penalty for Hardin. The jury's recommendation will be forwarded to Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Nancy Moate Ley.
"My emotions, they're going wild right now," said Shultz's brother Rick, 50, of Cape Coral. "But I'm also relieved at the same time. This has been a very long three years."
"I'm relieved," said Heath's brother, George Castrinos, 48, of Los Angeles. "I'm saddened for the other families."
He meant both Shultz's family and Hardin's, and he wasn't the only member of a victim's family to express compassion for the family of the killer.
In fact, before the verdict, Ley praised Heath's mother, June Bartke, for hugging Hardin's mother, Linda. Ley said she had only seen that gesture between mothers in their positions one other time in the courtroom.
"It's so very hard" for people to understand that "families are in fact broken on both sides" of a situation like this one, Ley said.
Linda Hardin said after the verdict that, "regardless of what happened, I love my son."
Despite the compassion they expressed, family members also stressed that they were still dealing with intense pain over what Heath's son David called the "unprovoked violence" of the crime.
Prosecutors said during the trial that Hardin and a friend, Dorion Dillard, gunned down the two men on Jan 17, 2007.
An eyewitness said he saw both men fire their handguns at one of the men. Another eyewitness said he saw both men carrying handguns toward Shultz in an alley, and he later heard gunshots from the alley, although he did not see the shooting itself. Prosecutors also presented evidence that efforts had been made to intimidate one of the witnesses and make him testify someone else actually shot the men.
Assistant State Attorney Scott Rosenwasser portrayed it as a senseless crime with no purpose.
Defense attorneys argued that Hardin was the wrong man.
On the night of the killing, Shultz, 43, was riding his bicycle in the 3500 block of Sixth Avenue N in St. Petersburg. He was Dillard's and Hardin's first victim.
About an hour later, the two came across Heath, 53, who was just a few blocks away from a friend's house where he planned to spend the night in a backyard hammock. He was shot and killed in the 4300 block of Seventh Avenue N.
Heath's family members have objected to the "homeless murders" name because they said he was not without a home.
Dillard previously pleaded guilty to the murders and was sentenced to life in prison without parole. Although he gave a deposition saying Hardin was not the shooter, he was not called to testify for the defense.
Curtis Krueger can be reached at (727) 893-8232 or firstname.lastname@example.org.