LARGO — Jurors hearing a rare kind of murder case came back with a not guilty verdict for a Tampa teen on Thursday.
The jury did, however, find Juan Carlos Morales, 19, guilty for his role in kidnapping Gregory Longley in September 2008. That verdict could carry a life sentence.
In addition to kidnapping, Morales faced a charge of second-degree murder. Prosecutors say he helped two other teens kidnap Longley, who ultimately grabbed the gun from his kidnappers and shot Morales and Javon Strange, killing Strange.
Under Florida law, Morales could have been found guilty of Strange's murder even though he didn't pull the trigger. Florida is one of a handful of states that allows murder prosecutions with those sets of circumstances. Longley faced no charges because he acted in self-defense.
Jurors were instructed that to find Morales guilty of murder, they first had to find him guilty of kidnapping. Prosecutors said afterward that they were surprised by the split verdict.
"I was expecting guilty on both counts," Assistant State Attorney Evan Brodsky said.
Prosecutors say that Morales, Strange and Abdusbasiyr Blake went to Oldsmar that night looking for Sean Gerstmann. Blake was upset because he believed Gerstmann had stolen some rare coins from him.
Morales testified Wednesday that he went with Blake because he was like a brother, and he didn't want to let him down.
The teens drove around looking for Gerstmann, and ultimately guessed he was staying at the Aday Motel. There, they kidnapped Longley, who was visiting Gerstmann.
Wednesday, Longley told jurors he was terrified when he thought of what the teens might do to him.
He was outside Gerstmann's hotel room talking to his girlfriend when Blake and Strange walked up. At first he thought they wanted cigarettes. Then they pulled out a gun and told him to come with them.
At a parking garage where the teens stopped, Longley said he heard them talk about killing Gerstmann and then him. Later, as Strange took his hand off the gun to send a text message, Longley grabbed it and shot Strange and Morales.
Blake faces charges of kidnapping and second-degree murder. He is scheduled to stand trial next month.
In closing arguments, defense attorney Stephen Nelson emphasized that Morales played only a limited role. He said Blake and Strange kidnapped Longley and that Morales didn't realize what had happened because Longley remained calm.
Morales is scheduled to be sentenced Aug. 13.
Sara Gregory can be reached at (727) 893-8785 or [email protected]