TAMPA — It took nearly five years, hundreds of pro bono legal hours and one new witness, but Jean Claude Meus will get a new trial.
Meus began a 15-year prison sentence in 2003 after a jury convicted him of vehicular homicide in the deaths of Nona Moore, 40, and her daughter Lindsey, 8.
In an order issued Tuesday afternoon, a Hardee County circuit judge found that Meus' trial attorney erred when he failed to contact an important witness, Juan Otero, a volunteer firefighter and the first responder at the scene of the fatal 2001 crash.
"The Court finds that it is reasonably likely that the testimony of Mr. Otero would have resulted in a different verdict," Judge Jeff J. McKibben wrote.
Meus, a 44-year-old Haitian immigrant and truck driver, will be transferred from prison to Hardee County, where his attorney will ask a judge to grant bail.
Prosecutors will appeal the judge's decision.
"Respectfully, we believe that there are issues with which we disagreed with the judge's ruling," said Chip Thullbery, a spokesman for the State Attorney's Office in Bartow. He declined to give specifics.
Meus heard the news late in the afternoon when he called his fiancee, Rebecca Chenoweth. She had sent him a message earlier in the day to call her.
"He thought I was calling about something else," she said with a chuckle. "Then he said, 'Yes, yes, oh yea, yea!' "
Since Meus' arrest, the couple have dreamed of a return to normal life. He told her he can't wait to taste Haitian food and mangos. She's hoping to cook for him and to watch him eat her spaghetti.
They want finally to be wed.
Meus has been in prison since September 2003.
On May 11, 2001, at an intersection in rural Hardee County, his semitrailer, loaded with tomatoes, collided with a van carrying Nona Moore and her children home from a shopping trip.
At the trial, prosecutors accused Meus of falling asleep at the wheel. The state's case was based on circumstantial evidence, and the case came down to "a battle of the experts," Judge McKibben wrote.
After a jury convicted Meus, his fiancee joined forces with the sisters and daughters of Moore, who maintained that Meus committed no crime.
The case drew widespread attention, particularly after activists contrasted it with the case of Jennifer Porter, a former Hillsborough teacher sentenced to house arrest for her role in a deadly crash. The activists raised questions about race. Porter is white; those who died were black. Meus is black; those who died were white.
A major turning point in the case came when Juan Otero saw a television report on the crash. Otero called the station and said that he was the first responder at the scene and that Meus was not asleep. No one had asked Otero to testify at the trial.
An appeals court cleared the way for Otero's testimony before McKibben at a March 25 hearing. Since then, Meus' supporters have waited for the judge's decision.
"Obviously, we're ecstatic," said Largo attorney John Trevena, who represents Meus for free.
"The case has always been, I think, a focal point for concerns of racial injustice and economic injustice," Trevena said. "If someone does not have the financial wherewithal or comes from a minority background, there are concerns about whether that person will receive a fair trial."
Rusty Franklin, Meus' trial attorney, also was pleased to hear the news, despite the court's criticism of his failure to interview Otero.
"My comment for the record is that I've always had confidence that Mr. Meus is innocent, and I'm grateful he's going to receive a new trial."
Researcher Will Short Gorham contributed to this report. Abbie VanSickle can be reached at email@example.com or 813-226-3373.