NEW PORT RICHEY — The path to reasonable doubt began Friday for the defense in the murder trial of Phillup Alan Partin.
The state already had a four-day head start: Eyewitness testimony identified Partin as the last one to see 16-year-old Joshan Ashbrook alive on July 31, 2002. Forensic evidence linked him to the runaway's brutalized body, found the next day. And Partin's own voice was caught on tape, sounding scared for his life while he evaded authorities for 13 months.
The state rested before lunch Friday. The defense began its case by trying to poke holes in forensic evidence, like whether tire tracks found near Joshan's body were mistakenly linked to Partin's old Ford pickup.
Jurors shook their heads and rubbed their eyes as sheriff's personnel were grilled over whether it rained the day the body was found or if they did a thorough-enough job looking for evidence.
But the defense promised a big finish Monday.
The stakes are high: Partin faces the death penalty if convicted of first-degree murder.
So what will his defense be against all this evidence?
Someone else did it.
Associate Medical Examiner Noel Palma described Joshan's death to jurors this week.
The official cause of death: blunt trauma to the head and neck. But there were also defensive cuts on her hands. There were binding marks left on her neck, wrists and ankles. She suffered a brain hemorrhage from a powerful blow. There was a gaping cut across her throat. And her head and spine were separated.
"Could it have been caused by an accident?" asked Assistant State Attorney Mike Halkitis.
"No," Palma said.
Jurors also learned this week that DNA found on hairs embedded in Joshan's hand could statistically only have come from Partin. And they learned that Joshan's blood was found in Partin's old room, where he and the victim were last seen before her death.
While jurors were out of the courtroom, the defense shared its theory about the hair and blood evidence.
Partin's hair didn't end up on the victim because he killed her, goes the defense theory, but because she was killed in his room that contained his hair.
Joshan's killer must already have been in the house, the defense argued, so it must have been the landlord that Partin lived with back in 2002.
"It's not unreasonable that the hair could have ended up on her as she was being killed in that room," said lawyer Bjorn Brunvand, "unbeknownst to Mr. Partin."
The St. Petersburg Times is not identifying the landlord because he has not been charged with any crime.
But in their opening statement the defense vowed to call him as a witness. That could be Monday.
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In a jailhouse letter mailed to the Times this week Partin mocked the agency that spent 13 months hunting him down: the Pasco County Sheriff's Office.
Partin also mocked the troubled disciplinary record of one hunter: Deputy Scott Gattuso.
For some reason Gattuso has drawn Partin's ire. He had Gattuso's personnel record sent to him in jail, Partin said in his letter. The defendant even glared at the deputy as he testified against him this week.
But back in 2002, as Partin called Gattuso while on the run, the defendant displayed more fear than bravado in recorded calls played back for the jury this week.
"Just so you know," Partin said, "I'm scared you guys will throw down and shoot me."
In his calls Partin asked again and again why deputies were after him.
"I'll be honest with you," Gattuso said, "you're still our guy."
Jamal Thalji can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727)