LARGO — Three men are on trial for the first-degree murder of Paris Whitehead-Hamilton even though no one, not even prosecutors, has said the men actually intended to kill her.
Defense attorneys jumped on that issue Monday, just after the state rested in the case, which stems from the drive-by shooting that caused a community outcry in St. Petersburg after one of the bullets killed 8-year-old Paris.
Also Monday, all three defendants said they did not plan to testify in their own defense. The three defense attorneys also said they plan to call no witnesses. Closing arguments will be today, and the case will likely go to the jury today or Wednesday.
Edward Panzica, attorney for defendant Dondre Davis, asked Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Nancy Moate Ley to find his client not guilty of first-degree murder.
"I would say that the judgment of acquittal is certainly appropriate for the first-degree murder charge as far as premeditation goes," Panzica said. He said prosecutors could claim "at most a second-degree murder."
His argument touches on a nuanced area of the law that could make the difference as to whether Davis, Stephen Cortez Harper or Duong Dai Nguyen, all 21, have a chance of getting out of prison any time in their lives.
Generally, a first-degree murder is one that was premeditated or planned — even if it was planned for only seconds.
According to testimony, Davis, Harper and Nguyen were angry at a man named Markeath "Monster" Fielder, because he had supposedly shot in their direction. This provoked an angry response, because Fielder was from a Harbordale neighborhood gang called 8-Hype, and the others were from the Bethel Heights Boys, two groups with decades of rivalry and violence between them.
So Davis, Harper and Nguyen piled into a red Ford Focus, which was driven by a fourth man, Mario Lewis Walls, who already has pleaded guilty and who testified against the others in this trial.
Panzica pointed out that Walls testified that when the four men drove to the house at 771 Preston Avenue S looking for Fielder, "they didn't see Monster; they had no idea if he was there." He said evidence proves the idea was to scare Monster, not to kill him.
Nguyen's attorney, Michael O'Haire, made a similar argument.
But Assistant State Attorney Richard Ripplinger said Walls also testified the men planned to kill Fielder. Under the law, they can still be convicted of first-degree murder even though the bullet hit someone else, he said.
The judge denied Panzica's motion for an acquittal, meaning the trial will continue.
The situation is different for Harper. Although he gave directions on how to find the house, there has been no testimony that indicated he fired a weapon. His attorney Keith Hammond said he may concede today that Harper committed third-degree felony murder or manslaughter.
The only possible sentence for Davis, Harper and Nguyen — if convicted of first-degree murder — would be life in prison without parole, because prosecutors are not seeking the death penalty. But a second-degree conviction would give them the possibility of less than a life sentence.