DADE CITY — One witness said he watched Anthony Harris kill Cleo Stinyard over drugs and cash.
Another witness said Harris was framed for the murder because he had snitched on drug dealers to the federal government.
Harris' first-degree murder trial this week consisted of conflicting accounts from witnesses mired in a world of crime and drug use — and a lack of forensic evidence tying Harris to the crime.
After deliberating about four hours Wednesday evening, a 12-member jury found the 24-year-old Harris not guilty.
"Thank you, Jesus," Harris said after the verdict was read.
Stinyard's family and friends gasped and cried.
The verdict was a rare setback for the State Attorney's Office in the Sixth Circuit, where acquittals in first-degree murder cases are virtually unheard of.
Prosecutors said Harris went into Stinyard's home, which had vast stockpiles of cocaine and cash, on June 12, 2009, and shot him in the chest and head. They put on witnesses Mendra and Jamar Hicks, who said Harris told them about his plan, saw him carry out the killing and then used some of the drugs with him immediately afterward.
"Mr. Harris went over there and he finished what he set out he was going to do. He murdered Cleo Stinyard," said Assistant State Attorney Manny Garcia.
But Harris' attorney, Charles Lykes, presented two other witnesses who said the Hickses were framing Harris.
Willie Sims testified that the Hickses admitted as much to him.
"Because he was a federal snitch and he worked for the feds and he would have told on them just like he did Luc," Sims, currently a jail inmate, testified.
He was referring to Luc Pierre-Charles, convicted last year of killing two Wesley Chapel teens in 2006. Harris was working as an informer for the Drug Enforcement Administration at the time of the murders and testified that Pierre-Charles admitted the killings to him.
Lykes also held up to jurors a T-shirt from Stinyard's home that a DNA analyst tested. It contained several people's DNA — but not Harris'.
"This demonstrates a lack of evidence," Lykes said.
Stinyard, 48, had a lengthy arrest history. He spent a year in prison for aggravated battery in 1984. He was sentenced to 2 1/2 years for cocaine possession in 1989 and another year in 1991. He was convicted of battery again in 2005.
In 2000, he was accused of exposing himself to a neighbor, then attacking police officers who responded to the call.
Harris still has pending charges of robbery and gun and drug charges. He returned to the Pasco County jail Wednesday night.
"Thank you, your honor, for a fair trial," he told Circuit Judge Pat Siracusa.
Molly Moorhead can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6245.