LARGO — Ernesto Hedges, a former Tampa police officer charged with molesting two 9-year-old girls, was back in court Wednesday with a new line of defense.
It wasn't his first go-around.
In 2005, a jury took less than an hour to find him guilty. A judge sentenced him to a minimum mandatory 25 years in prison, designating him a sexual predator.
But the case didn't end there.
Hedges' lawyers were so bad, he argued, that he should have another trial. He had employed attorneys Jorge Chalela and James Thomas Jr., the latter known as the "Traffic Ticket King of Tampa," who had never tried a sex abuse case. Hedges and his team demanded a speedy trial, a strategic move that backfired.
A series of blunders followed — no thorough examination of evidence, no expert witnesses, and a disjointed, rambling closing argument from Chalela that left jurors shocked and appalled.
In a rare move, Circuit Judge Linda Allan, who presided over his trial, ruled four months after sentencing him that Hedges should be granted a new trial because his representation was ineffective. Four years later, before Judge Cynthia Newton, the courtroom was an entirely different scene. Stephen Romine, an attorney from Barry Cohen's powerhouse law firm, represented Hedges on Wednesday. He was armed with boxes of prepared materials, a large whiteboard and a red marker to illustrate a time line in the case. He was animated before the jury in support of his client.
"There will be no physical evidence that he molested anybody," he said in opening statements. "There will be no eyewitness evidence that he molested anybody."
Hedges, 54, was a uniformed master patrol officer in the district that polices South Tampa, Port of Tampa and Davis Islands. In his most recent evaluation before being charged with the crime, his supervisor called him "an asset to the squad and a pleasure to supervise."
On Feb. 26, 2005, he went to a family birthday party at a house in Clearwater. He drank beer and play-fought with the two girls, tickling and pillow fighting.
Later that night, he sat between the two 9-year-olds on the couch and watched a movie. Other family members were in the same room sleeping or dozing off.
"We were sitting on the couch and Ernie started massaging and tickling our leg, but not the tickling we were doing before," testified one of the girls, now 14, Wednesday. "It was more a massage type of thing."
One girl told detectives Hedges rubbed outside her underwear. The other said he went inside her underwear.
In a taped interview, Hedges said it was just horseplay.
"The one thing that you'll always hear is that it wasn't sexual," said Romine on Wednesday.
The trial continues today.
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8857.