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Three murder trials to hit court dockets this week across Tampa Bay

More than two years have passed since their violent deaths:

The Tampa police corporal.

The wife of a Jabil Circuit executive, killed with another man.

The woman who dialed 911 from inside the trunk of a car.

Now attention turns to those accused of the killings. All three face the death penalty. And they're all lined up, by coincidence, for trials in an extraordinary week in courthouses on both sides of Tampa Bay.

It begins today.

• • •

Before two Tampa police officers were gunned down during a traffic stop, making Dontae Morris the most infamous murder suspect in Hillsborough County, the city awoke to this news in August 2009:

Tampa police Cpl. Michael Roberts had died with a bullet in his chest on Nebraska Avenue, after approaching a paranoid, armed homeless man pushing a shopping cart. Humberto Delgado was booked into jail, and portrayals of the two men were juxtaposed — one a model lawman, the other, a frightening killer.

But there were parallels. Both were fathers in their 30s, both were U.S. Army veterans. Delgado, too, had served as a police officer, in his native St. Croix.

His only brush with the law, before his capital murder accusation, was a speeding ticket.

But Delgado was troubled, and his public defenders will try to use evidence of mental illness to save his life.

Their motions say Delgado has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and hospitalized for acute paranoid ideation and acute psychotic disorder. Delgado spoke with childhood friend Raidvil Richardson two weeks before the shooting and said he was going to the streets, because he couldn't get help and nobody cared.

"He was just in a dark place," Richardson said.

For years, he said, Delgado had told him that members of the fraternal society of the Masons were coming to kill him. "He probably felt that this police officer was, at the moment, the person he's always been thinking was going to come back and take him out," Richardson said. "In his mind, in my heart, that's what happened."

Tampa police officers have filled the courtroom for every one of Delgado's hearings, led by Chief Jane Castor, in support of the fallen corporal's wife, Cindy Roberts. Detective Lisa Parashis will be among those at the trial.

She says she's prepared for psychological jargon, and she's afraid she'll hear lies. She still longs to know why Roberts died. "Maybe," the detective said, "we'll never have the answer."

• • •

The death penalty, reserved for the worst crimes in the land, is being pursued in about a fifth of the murder cases being prosecuted by the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office. But not all of those cases must go to trial. Prosecutors could decide, as the case progresses, to drop their intent, or defendants could plead guilty, last-minute, for life in prison.

The Hillsborough Courthouse can go years without a death penalty trial. But today, two will begin. They will each require a panel of 12 jurors, plus alternates, who can be fair and impartial and are willing to commit to service for more than a week.

The clerk's office has issued 2,735 summonses for all of its trials this week, which is 750 more than usual. Lawyers will select a pool from 150 potential jurors in the Delgado case, with 50 more on reserve, just in case, and 150 in the second death penalty trial, the case of Vincent Brown.

Brown, 41, was a felon with a history of domestic violence when he was accused of killing the mother of his child. Her name was Jennifer Johnson. She was found dead in an abandoned Lakeland house in November 2008. Before she died, she managed to call 911 from inside a car trunk. But the call was dropped, and Johnson never got help.

Representatives for Plant City police, which answered the phone, have said that the call dropped before Johnson could give enough information for the operator to find her, and that the situation could have been made worse if an operator had called back, alerting the kidnapper. The incident resulted in an operator's termination, three other resignations and an ongoing lawsuit, filed on behalf of Johnson's estate.

The 911 call is expected to be played at trial.

• • •

On the other side of the bay today, jury selection will begin in the double murder case against Patrick A. Evans, a former Jabil Circuit vice president who lived in a million-dollar waterfront home in St. Pete Beach. His life there was not quiet — neighbors often called police to complain of shouting matches between Evans and his second and third wives.

Police say that on Dec. 20, 2008, Evans went to the Gulfport condo where his estranged wife Elizabeth K. Evans lived. She was there with her friend, Jerry B. Taylor, 43. Evans is accused of pulling out his handgun and killing them both.

Prosecutors will rely on a compelling piece of evidence: a recording of the murder, made when someone in the condo called 911 and didn't hang up.

In the call, two people are heard asking someone named "Rick" to put his gun down. (Patrick Evans used that nickname.)

Then, a gunshot sounds.

A female screams: "Have you lost your … mind!"

Another gunshot.

After that, silence.

Alexandra Zayas can be reached at azayas@sptimes.com.

Three murder trials to hit court dockets this week across Tampa Bay 10/30/11 [Last modified: Sunday, October 30, 2011 9:27pm]
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