TAVARES — "This case is about a guy named John Kelly. … He was a fixture in Hernando County."
With those words, Assistant State Attorney Don Barbee opened the trial Monday against Jamie Lynn Tyson, one of two young men standing trial this week in a brutal attack on the man known as "the walker."
In often dramatic language, the prosecutor described how Tyson and two friends allegedly targeted Kelly as he walked along State Road 50 near the intersection with Deltona Boulevard on the night of Sept. 19, 2007, beating him in the head with steel rebar and fleeing with Kelly's black backpack and $100.
"They beat him. They beat him badly," Barbee told jurors. But "John Kelly, left for dead, gets up out of that roadside grave of his and musters the energy to walk, like he always did."
Kelly and his harrowing story is familiar in Hernando, where the 50-year-old mentally challenged man walked the roadways for nearly a decade, earning his nickname and endearing him to many.
But here in Lake County, two counties and 60 miles east, not one person recognized his name.
This is why Circuit Judge Stephen Rushing transferred the trial here. In January, Rushing abruptly aborted the initial trial in Brooksville, deciding it was too difficult to find an unbiased jury because at least half the potential jurors felt strongly about the case.
Attorneys found selecting a jury much easier this time, but they still spent the bulk of the day working through the process.
Kelly didn't enter the courtroom — and won't testify because his memory of the attack is too murky.
He did sit in the hallway with his brother George, looking thin, if not frail. He sat silent, wearing a baseball hat, a trimmed gray beard and Velcro walking shoes.
Jurors saw only his photographic image, four pictures taken soon after the attack that show him bloodied and beaten.
Sean Moulton, a Hernando County paramedic, saw him first the night of the attack. He described the "copious amount of blood" covering Kelly's entire torso.
"He just kept repeating, 'Help me. Help me,' " Moulton told jurors.
The trial continues today and Tyson, 18, is expected to testify in his defense.
"He doesn't have to take the stand," defense attorney Frank Bankowitz said in his opening statement. "He doesn't have to prove anything. But he wants to tell you that he did not do this."
The 18-year-old from Weeki Wachee faces a life sentence if convicted on charges of attempted felony murder, armed robbery, conspiracy to commit armed robbery and tampering with evidence.
The prosecutor's case resumes this morning with the testimony of Anthony Hawkins, 18, a friend of Tyson's who allegedly acted as the lookout during the attack.
Hawkins took a plea deal that allowed him to receive a juvenile sentence in exchange for his testimony.
"Does that make him a snitch?" Barbee asked. "Does that mean he did the right thing? Only you can make that decision."
The prosecutor acknowledged that his case lacked physical evidence, making Hawkins' testimony important. "I don't know if I've ever said this before in front of a jury, but if you don't believe Anthony Hawkins, you can't convict Jamie Tyson," he said.
Bankowitz, Tyson's court-appointed attorney from Orlando, will try to prove Hawkins' testimony isn't believable. He told jurors that Hawkins initially told a different story to law enforcement that denied any knowledge of the attack.
"You've got to weigh the credibility of the witnesses," Bankowitz implored to the jury. Hawkins "got favoritism for his testimony, so he would testify the way the state wants."
Tyson's mother will give jurors an alibi for her son. She will testify that he was home the night of the attack, eating spaghetti and meatballs.
Barbee mocked this defense in his opening statement. He noted the alibi conflicts with other statements given to authorities and the timing is suspect. Becky Tyson came forward with the story only days before the first trial was scheduled to start.
A third defendant, Michael Vann, 24, is expected to stand trial after Tyson's case concludes.
John Frank can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 754-6114.