TAMPA — Murder has no time limitations in court. But determining guilt or innocence after 25 years does because memories fade over time, a defense attorney said Wednesday.
Time was the central character in the second-degree murder trial of Albert Leon Dooley, 57, accused of killing Donna M. Sheffield in 1983.
Prosecutor Kyle Pennington argued that one thing can withstand the scrutiny of statements and witness accounts taken years ago, and it's the same thing that helped Tampa police catch a suspect two years ago: DNA.
"We've referred to this case being an old case," Pennington told jurors during opening statements. "But it's not an old case, it's a new case."
Technology revived it, he said, and can prove Sheffield's killer.
Sheffield, 23, had a history of drug use and prostitution, and seemed ready to start fresh and move in with her sister just two days before she was killed.
"One thing time does not change is the fact that that was my sister," said Renee Brewster, 51, an Ocala pastor, outside the courtroom. "That was my mother's child, and that was my sister murdered."
On Jan. 22, 1983, a man eating dinner in a Robles Park public housing complex heard shots and looked out his window to see a body slumped near a car. He saw a man get out of the car, put the body inside and drive off.
Witnesses said they had seen Sheffield lean into the light-colored Ford Mustang before shots rang out, and they took down its license plate.
A Tampa Housing Authority worker soon found Sheffield's body along a road.
The initial investigation led detectives to an abusive on-and-off boyfriend and Dooley, whose mother owned a 1981 Mustang.
Police found Sheffield's blood type in the car, and Dooley's mother told them her son drove it that day. But investigators couldn't arrest him until 2006 when DNA testing put Sheffield in the car.
"Now things have changed," Pennington told jurors.
But Dooley's public defender said that DNA also casts doubt as to whether her client was guilty. Foreign matter tested under Sheffield's left fingernails came back as belonging to two men, neither of whom was Dooley.
Attorney Anna Frederiksen-Cherry also told jurors that fingerprints found outside the car didn't match her client's. She said four men — none was Dooley — were stopped by police in the car hours after Sheffield's body was found.
As the trial continues this week, she told jurors to expect witnesses to forget details.
"Time absolutely matters," she said. "Keep a cautious eye to those memory lapses."
Even her client's memory, tested by a psychologist, shows impairment, she warned.
She discounted witness accounts, saying no one can identify Dooley as the man who put the body inside the car. She said a witness saw Sheffield lean into another car 15 minutes before her body was found. She said Sheffield's on-and-off boyfriend threatened her before her death.
For 25 years, she said, one thing was crystal clear: Dooley has maintained his innocence.
"There is no statement by my client admitting that he committed this crime," she said.
Justin George can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3368.