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Plea deal rejected, jury selected in Hernando murder trial of Stanley Eckard

BROOKSVILLE — Before the bailiff brought in the men and women who might decide Stanley Eckard's fate, the judge made sure the defendant knew the stakes.

Hernando County Circuit Judge Anthony Tatti reminded Eckard on Monday morning that a first-degree murder charge comes with only two possible sentences if he is convicted. Since prosecutors aren't seeking the death penalty, that leaves one: life in prison without parole.

"Do you understand that?" Tatti asked.

Sitting at the defense table dressed in a navy blue suit, Eckard nodded once.

"Yes, sir," he replied.

By 5 p.m., attorneys had selected a panel of 12 jurors plus two alternates to decide if Eckard intentionally killed his younger brother, Sean, on June 19, 2010.

Prosecutors say Stanley Eckard planned the killing when he broke into his brother's bedroom, then buried him in the yard of the Spring Hill home the men shared with their parents.

First thing Monday, Assistant State Attorney Pete Magrino asked Tatti to have Eckard state for the record that he was rejecting the state's plea offer. Had Eckard entered an open guilty plea to the lesser charge of second-degree murder, his prison sentence would have been capped at 20 years.

Among the nine women and three men selected Monday are a grocery store cashier, a mechanic, two assistant principals, a restaurant manager, a bank manager, a graphic artist and a secretary.

Magrino told Tatti he will need two days to present the state's case. The trial is expected to conclude by Friday.

"From an evidentiary perspective, it's really simple," Magrino said.

Magrino is expected to point to statements Stanley Eckard made after his arrest indicating simmering resentment of Sean and tension over a woman.

According to court documents, Eckard said he wrapped an elastic cord around Sean's neck during the struggle but didn't mean to kill him. Eckard said they fell to the floor and he heard Sean's neck pop and felt his body go limp.

Eckard has admitted that he then hoisted his brother's body out the window and buried him in a shallow grave in the side yard. Samuel Eckard, the young men's father, found Sean's body two days later.

The medical examiner concluded he had died from a fracture to the back of his skull, broken vertebrae or both.

Acknowledging their son's mistake in trying to hide Sean's death, Samuel and Donna Eckard say they are convinced he is telling the truth, and they have criticized prosecutors for pursuing a murder charge.

The Eckards say they believe Stanley went into the room to talk about Sean's girlfriend, an argument turned physical, and Stanley had to defend himself.

Some of the questions chief assistant public defender Alan Fanter posed Monday to prospective jurors hinted at a defense strategy. He asked if they knew anyone who took medication for mental health issues, and if they thought people could act differently under extreme stress.

Eckard turned 24 on Monday. Before the proceedings began, his mother sat in the second row of the gallery and whispered the song Happy Birthday.

At the end of the day, Eckard turned to his family, smiled and gave a thumbs-up sign.

"Drive safe, guys," he said.

Reach Tony Marrero at tmarrero@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1431. Follow @tmarrerotimes on Twitter.

Plea deal rejected, jury selected in Hernando murder trial of Stanley Eckard 04/08/13 [Last modified: Monday, April 8, 2013 11:03pm]
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