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New trial date is March 22 for Pasco County neo-Nazi accused of murder

Defendant John Ditullio shakes hands with his court-appointed attorney, Bjorn Brunvand, on Monday during a hearing to set a new trial date. Ditullio’s first murder trial ended in a hung jury.

BRENDAN FITTERER | Times

Defendant John Ditullio shakes hands with his court-appointed attorney, Bjorn Brunvand, on Monday during a hearing to set a new trial date. Ditullio’s first murder trial ended in a hung jury.

NEW PORT RICHEY — John Ditullio didn't have the money to hire a lawyer to help him fight his murder charge, so the court appointed Bjorn Brunvand.

He was in for a daunting uphill climb.

Ditullio was a self-professed neo-Nazi covered in menacing tattoos, including a swastika and profanity. He was accused of stabbing two people in a hate-fueled rampage, killing one. The state had DNA evidence tying him to the 2006 crime, an eyewitness account from the surviving victim and several damning letters written by Ditullio himself. And they were going up against a veteran prosecutor who never loses, Mike Halkitis.

But after a weeklong trial, Brunvand nearly got Ditullio off.

The jury deliberated for 10 hours Friday and deadlocked. Ten of the 12 voted for acquittal.

On Monday, Brunvand prepared to do it all over again as Circuit Judge Michael Andrews set a new trial date: March 22. The state will try again for the death penalty.

Brunvand, 45, ended up with the case by pure chance. He's in a small pool of lawyers in the area who take on cases like Ditullio's, earning far less than his normal hourly rate. His name just came up.

At that point, Ditullio wanted to represent himself, and Brunvand went into their first meeting hoping to talk him out of that.

"I walked up to him, and he said, 'I already know what you're going to say. I'm friends with Adam, and Adam says you're cool, so I'm going to let you represent me,' " he recalled Ditullio, a white supremacist, saying.

Adam, Brunvand said, was another jail inmate. An African-American.

Brunvand is a transplant from Norway. He came to Florida as an exchange student knowing nothing more about the state than Cape Canaveral, oranges and alligators. He attended Largo High School, the University of South Florida and Stetson law school. He's divorced with three daughters and engaged to a woman with three more children.

He started out as a public defender, then opened his own practice in 1992.

Big cases don't daunt him.

In 2004, he represented a Russian freighter captain whose ship had taken on more than 3 tons of cocaine in Colombia.

"He was found not guilty, even though he ordered the crew to take on the cocaine," Brunvand said. "The argument was basically that he was a victim of the big drug cartels and the American war on drugs. He felt like he basically didn't have a choice."

Brunvand had roles in the Pasco County murder trials of Gary Cannon, accused of raping and stabbing to death 9-year-old Sharra Ferger, and Phillup Partin, who kidnapped and murdered a teenage runaway. Both were convicted.

He has never won a murder case. Ditullio would be a first.

A key tactical move he made before the trial even began was to persuade the judge to allow a cosmetologist to cover up Ditullio's neck and face tattoos. He feared jurors would decide his client was guilty, regardless of the evidence, if they had to see the markings.

"It takes away the distraction of very offensive tattoos, which make you scary-looking and not likable. We weren't looking for anyone to like John; we were just looking for a fair trial," he said.

When Ditullio, 23, returned to court Monday morning, he was shackled and wearing a red jail jumpsuit. His facial tattoos were visible once again.

Patricia Wells, now 48, said she's not looking forward to going through another trial. She was seriously injured in the attack by stab wounds to her face and hands. Kristofer King, who was 17, died. Ditullio was a recruit for a group of American Nazis who lived next door to her house in the Griffin Park subdivision of west Pasco. They harassed her for having a gay son and black friends. King, also gay, was friends with her son.

Wells says she's no less convinced that the authorities have the right man.

"Absolutely positive," she said Monday. "(John Ditullio) is the only one that fits the description. As soon as I saw (his picture) in the paper, I knew that was the person that came into my house."

Wells was upset that prosecutor Halkitis did not give a closing argument, laying out the evidence for jurors and taking one final shot at convincing them of Ditullio's guilt.

"I just think it hurt the case," Wells said. "You would expect that they would have had closing arguments in a case this big."

Brunvand also waived his closing.

"The closing argument is the one time when the lawyers are allowed to directly try to persuade the jurors," said Robert Batey, a criminal law professor at Stetson University. That's an opportunity, he said, that most lawyers would not pass up.

"I'm sure there's some reason (they chose to)," Batey said. "How good that reason will look in hindsight is another matter."

From the defense perspective, he said, it could have meant winning over the final two jurors.

But it's also a hard lesson for the state.

"I think the prosecutors have got to take it to heart," Batey said, "that they came very close to losing the trial."

Brunvand, for his part, didn't think it mattered so much for either side.

He had a closing ready to go. But he worried it would get lost behind Halkitis, a sharp, effective prosecutor who would get to speak last.

"I was concerned that he could turn the jury back around by bringing up those letters again," he said, referring to Ditullio's writings. In a Christmas card he sent to King's family, Ditullio called King a "dead f--" and wished them a "Merry f------ Christmas." In another, he wrote to his father that he wanted to take responsibility for his actions.

Brunvand thinks discrepancies between the attacker's clothing and what Ditullio was seen wearing that night, coupled with tainted DNA evidence from the crime, made a bigger difference.

And he thought Ditullio did well on the stand. The jurors were allowed to question him themselves, and Ditullio answered more than 40 of their questions, maintaining his innocence.

"It seemed like a big shift," Brunvand said.

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

New trial date is March 22 for Pasco County neo-Nazi accused of murder 12/14/09 [Last modified: Monday, December 14, 2009 11:46pm]
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