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To gain freedom, man pleads guilty to crime he swears he didn't commit

Thelma Royston, with her husband, Larry, was killed June 7, 1989. Larry Royston was charged but killed himself.

Times files

Thelma Royston, with her husband, Larry, was killed June 7, 1989. Larry Royston was charged but killed himself.

TAMPA — Michael Mordenti always swore he didn't do it.

That he didn't shoot and stab 54-year-old Thelma Royston in her Odessa horse barn in 1989. That he didn't accept $17,000 from her husband, Larry Royston, to do the deed. That he was innocent, even after two juries convicted him of murder and he spent 17 years in prison.

But late last week, as prosecutors and Mordenti headed into a new trial following an appeal, he agreed to a deal: plead guilty, and go free.

Wednesday, the 67-year-old Mordenti boarded a plane to Alaska, to start a new life.

All along, the case had hinged on the testimony of one witness, Mordenti's ex-wife, Gail Mordenti Milligan. Under immunity, the Largo woman told authorities she had acted as the go-between in the contract killing.

Prosecutors had no physical evidence, no money trail, no eyewitnesses, no confession. But in 1991, he was sentenced to death after a jury decided he was guilty of first-degree murder.

The Florida Supreme Court ordered a retrial, ruling that the prosecution had withheld important evidence. A second jury in 2005 heard Mordenti's case but could not come up with a unanimous decision. After the mistrial, a third jury in the same year convicted him again. This time, the penalty was life in prison, with a possibility of parole after 25 years.

But here's a piece of evidence none of those three juries heard:

Before he committed suicide, the victim's husband, Larry Royston, told his attorney that prosecutors had charged the wrong man.

This February, an appellate panel overturned his second conviction, saying a jury might have exonerated Mordenti had they heard that evidence. A fourth trial was scheduled for August.

But both sides were tired.

The victim's daughter said she didn't want to endure another trial. Mordenti told his lawyer he didn't think he could survive another conviction.

Last week, Mordenti weighed this offer: plead guilty to second-degree murder and conspiracy to commit second-degree murder, which carry a 25-year sentence and concurrent life sentence. With the 17 years credit time he had served, he would have already completed his sentence.

Mordenti's attorney, Martin McClain, recalls his client's conundrum: stay in jail, "maintaining your innocence and fighting to clear your name, in a system that hasn't listened," or say, "Just let me out."

He said Mordenti hesitated. "He really wanted to clear his name." Then he entered the plea, and on Friday, was released as a convicted murderer.

Assistant State Attorney Pam Bondi said Wednesday that Mordenti's plea option allowed him to enter a guilty plea "in his best interest." So in the end, Bondi said, "He never said he did it."

One woman in court Friday had never spoken to Mordenti but came to show support.

Susanna Burleigh, a 34-year-old mother of two, was the hung juror in his second trial. She didn't believe Mordenti's ex-wife.

"She had lied in so many other situations," Burleigh said. "I just didn't see how we could send this man to jail."

Others agreed, but didn't speak out, she said. She never budged. After the mistrial, Burleigh called Mordenti's attorney. "I'm sorry," she recalled telling him. "I tried."

McClain later asked her to help him prepare for the next trial, and she kept tabs on the case. So did attorney John Trevena, who represented Larry Royston when the husband told him Mordenti wasn't the killer.

"It's unfortunate that they compelled an innocent man to plea to the charge just to obtain his freedom and save face," Trevena said Wednesday. "But clearly, that man was innocent based on a lack of evidence."

The victim's daughter, Sherri L. Loeffelholz, could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Mordenti walked out of the Orient Road Jail on Friday evening, at dinner time. A handful of people awaited him, including his attorney, his daughter and old friends from his used car dealership. They went to Maggiano's Little Italy in Westshore Plaza for some pasta.

Mordenti marvelled at Blackberries and cell phones, things he'd only seen on television. He talked of moving to Big Lake, Alaska, where he has friends.

And he ate, McClain said. "He just ate and ate."

Times staff writers Colleen Jenkins and Erin Sullivan contributed to this report.

To gain freedom, man pleads guilty to crime he swears he didn't commit 07/30/08 [Last modified: Monday, August 4, 2008 3:14pm]
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