In a life-or-death gamble, a killer came to court Monday and pleaded guilty to two charges of first-degree murder — even though it might get him sentenced to death.
Khadafy Mullens, 29, has now admitted he killed a St. Petersburg convenience store owner and a customer, and also that he tried to kill another customer. The grisly 2008 shootings were captured on high-quality surveillance video at the Central Food Mart, 2157 Central Ave.
It might be hard to understand why Mullens would admit to crimes that could lead to his execution, but attorneys say the rarely used legal tactic sometimes can help a defendant avoid death.
The maneuver means Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Philip Federico will decide on his own whether to sentence Mullens to death, without the usual recommendation from a jury.
Considering the video, which could have had a big emotional impact on a jury, the defense decision is logical, said Charles Rose, a Stetson University College of Law professor who specializes in trial advocacy.
"They're giving their client the best chance at life in prison," Rose said.
Mullens was arrested after the shooting, along with Spencer Peeples, 32, who is still awaiting trial.
It was still light out in the early evening hours in August 2008 when two men walked into the convenience store owned by Mohammad Uddin, 44. One of the men waved a handgun and forced the store owner to the floor. The men demanded his car keys and then stole lottery tickets, taking several minutes to stuff them into plastic bags.
It was all captured by a surveillance camera.
There also was a customer in the store, Ronald Hayworth, 50.
Prosecutors have said that Mullens shot Uddin after he saw him dialing a telephone. Next, he grabbed Hayworth and shot him.
Another customer, Albert Barton, 69, was about to enter the store when a robber yanked him inside and shot him. Barton was able to fight back and survived the shooting.
Afterward, the shooter picked up his bag of lottery tickets and walked out of the store, with sirens already blaring in the background.
Because Mullens pleaded guilty on Monday, he won't go to trial. But he will have a hearing that could last several days before Federico. There are only two outcomes of this hearing: Mullens will be sentenced to life in prison or given the death penalty.
Normally in a death penalty case a jury listens to evidence and recommends whether the killer should die for his crimes. The case then goes to a judge, who does not have to follow the jury's recommendation but who is required to give it great weight.
In Mullens' case, the defense offered to plead guilty if the judge would agree not to send the case to a jury. Federico agreed.
That means Federico alone will make the decision.
Prosecutors still intend to argue for the death penalty, Assistant State Attorney Mark McGarry said.
Staff Writer Curtis Krueger can be reached at (727) 893-8232 or [email protected] Twitter: @ckruegertimes