TAMPA — James Behanna fatally stabbed a man in the heart with a pocketknife on Dec. 7, 2005.
On Thursday, after pleading guilty to manslaughter, he was sentenced to 42 months of probation.
It was a quiet end to a 5-year-old case in which the Tampa paralegal originally was convicted and sentenced to 15 years in prison before an appellate court decided he deserved a new trial.
The missing piece that made all the difference:
The state of mind of the victim, a 21-year-old Robert Mears Jr., who had recently moved from Pittsburgh to Tampa to get away from bad influences.
A young man whose family admits he was quick to fight, but did not deserve to die.
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Mears lived in an apartment down the street from the Florida Avenue law firm of Behanna's wife, Aida Rodriguez, within sight of the Sulphur Springs river tower.
This is what witnesses who testified said happened:
After 6 p.m. that day, Mears trespassed on the law firm property. Firm employees saw him coming out of his apartment agitated and angry, waving his arms, pounding his fist into his hand. They told him to stay away. Behanna testified he gave a warning from the window, but said Mears replied, "I'm not going anywhere."
So Behanna said he grabbed a shovel and went downstairs to find an intoxicated Mears yelling at Behanna's wife. Mears attacked him, Behanna testified. He grabbed Behanna, threw him onto the ground, took away the shovel and faced Behanna's wife. Behanna ran between them to try to get the shovel, but Mears threw it in the wife's direction and slammed Behanna against a post.
Behanna said he blacked out, but when he came to, he saw Mears running away. At the trial, prosecutors said Behanna should have gone into the office for safety. Instead, he followed Mears in what he called an attempt to detain him for police.
What happened 150 feet away from the initial fight was the crux of the criminal case: The defendant said Mears grabbed him by the throat and threatened to kill him. But one witness for the prosecution said Mears only pushed Behanna back.
Behanna, known by friends as MacGyver because he carried a pocketknife, pulled out his knife and stabbed Mears twice. The second time, he pierced his heart.
A jury considered, then rejected, the "stand your ground" law of self-defense.
This is what the jury didn't hear before it convicted Behanna:
Just before he stormed out of his apartment, police said Mears had beaten up his roommate and kicked him in the head.
In an appeal, Behanna argued that the jury should have known that. The 2nd District Court of Appeal agreed.
Behanna, who missed the birth of his son while in jail, bailed out a year after his conviction.
He tried to get the case dismissed again on the basis of self-defense, but Circuit Judge Daniel Sleet denied that request.
Ultimately, Behanna's attorney entered into negotiations with the state, which led to the probation deal.
• • •
On Thursday, Robert Mears, Sr. talked about what happened before his son stormed out of that apartment.
Growing up in Pittsburgh, his son was a smart kid who liked making people laugh and didn't like being told what to do. He ran away and dropped out of high school, but came home and got his GED. He never went to college, but worked.
He moved to Tampa to work at the Port Authority as a welder, his father said. He was trying to get his life together.
But he didn't keep good company.
Mears had trouble with his roommate, his father said. There was drinking and fighting. Mears was known to fight if he or his friends were threatened.
That day, the father said, his roommate had trashed his stuff and smashed his guitar. Mears was walking toward the Hillsborough River after the fight. The law firm was on the way.
"All he wanted to do was be left alone," the father said.
The father called the plea deal an "insult" and said Behanna has still not apologized to his family.
"There's nothing I can say to them that's going to make the situation any better," Behanna said after the hearing.
He said he was happy to be going home to his little boy.
Alexandra Zayas can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3354.