Trial starts in the death of New Port Richey wife

NEW PORT RICHEY — Days before David Andrew White would go on trial in the slaying of his wife, both sides launched pre-emptive legal strikes.

Authorities say White has told numerous stories about how his wife, Andrea, disappeared into the night on April 11, 2005 — and why he left for New York on July 14, the day her body was found.

The state asked a judge to limit what a jury might hear about the latest rationale: White fled because he said he was scared of his mother-in-law.

That's because she was once convicted of manslaughter — a fact the state wants kept from jurors.

The defense asked the judge to exclude two key state witnesses, medical examiners who have opined that Andrea White died of asphyxiation.

But that's their opinion. The official cause of death is "homicidal violence of unknown cause." That means authorities cannot say for sure how she died, only that it wasn't natural.

There's no such a thing as an ordinary murder case.

The David White trial, set to start today, is proof of that.

• • •

Andrea White was 33, a mother of four. David White was her third husband. They had two girls together.

She was found 5 miles from her New Port Richey home, her body submerged in the woods at the end of a Trinity cul-de-sac.

Her husband never reported her missing. A friend did that, after she went to the couple's home and found that Andrea White had left behind her driver's license and emergency insulin shots that she must take.

According to court records, David White told the friend, and officers in two states, several stories:

He told the friend that his wife left their home after a fight in an unknown blue car. Then he told a deputy that his wife walked away — but didn't mention the car.

When a detective in New York found him, White lied about his identity. Then he told the detective that his wife slapped him awake, then left in the car.

White later told a Pasco detective that his wife pulled a gun on him and tried to shoot him — but it didn't fire. He punched her, and she left the house.

Why would she try to kill him, the detective asked, then walk away barefoot, in her nightclothes?

White didn't answer. He asked for an attorney.

But during the interview, according to court records, White buried his face in his hands and moaned.

The detective asked why.

"I want to tell you, but I can't," White said. "If I do, her mother will kill me."

No direct evidence

Andrea White was not shot. She was not stabbed. Her skull wasn't broken, nor were any marks left on her neck.

"The body has no appreciable external trauma," wrote Associate Medical Examiner Daniel Schultz in his Sept. 27, 2005, autopsy report.

Authorities cannot say for sure how she died, just that she could not have died naturally, barefoot, clad only in sleeping attire, miles from her bedroom.

No one has convicted more murderers in Pasco County than Assistant State Attorney Mike Halkitis. The task of proving that David White killed his wife falls to him. Long Island-bred, a veteran of 34 years on the job, Halkitis has convicted dozens of murderers — usually armed with forensic evidence, or expert testimony, or incriminating statements overheard by jailhouse informants.

In this case there's no direct evidence linking the husband to the wife's murder, just circumstantial evidence — a group of facts that, taken together, can imply a crime. But Halkitis is undaunted.

"Sometimes circumstantial evidence cases, in my eyes, are sometimes stronger than direct evidence cases," he said. "Sometimes direct evidence cases come from unsavory characters with criminal records."

And sometimes, Halkitis said, you go to trial with what you have: "It would be nice if you have five priests and the pope sitting there, watching" the crime.

Death was not natural

Halkitis said two medical examiners think Andrea White was strangled or smothered. But they can't conclusively prove it because of the condition her body was found in, a result of water and time.

"The body was too bloated," he said. "The doctors could only opine that it was most consistent with asphyxiation.

"But he can say she died of no natural causes. It's not accidental … the way she was found in the pond, the way she was dumped in that swamp."

White and his family have maintained his innocence. The defense hinted last week that it might argue that Andrea White died of natural causes — say, a heart attack or her diabetic condition.

White's defenders, the Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender's Office, does not comment on cases. But the state said the defense has no experts to back that up.

"The case law says if the medical examiner can rule out natural causes of death, then it goes to the jury," Halkitis said. "(White) can argue that she walked out there in her night(clothes) and had a heart attack in the middle of the night.

"But he has no medical or expert testimony that she died of any other cause other than what our two experts say: homicidal violence."

Arrest, plea and bail

David White was arrested on a charge of second-degree murder in June 2006, 11 months after his wife was found. He pleaded not guilty, was released on bail and was allowed to remain in New York pending trial. He still has custody of daughters Sara and Sadie.

If convicted, he faces life in prison.

Circuit Judge Thane Covert denied the defense's motion Wednesday to exclude the two medical examiners who were speculating on the victim's cause of death. He reserved ruling on whether to keep out the manslaughter conviction of the victim's mother, which the state thinks is irrelevant to the case.

But if White testifies on his own behalf, the jury could end up hearing about it anyway.

The victim's mother, Janice Friend, was convicted in Arkansas in 1989, Halkitis said.

She shot and killed an abusive husband.

Jamal Thalji can be reached at thalji@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6236.

Trial starts in the death of New Port Richey wife 04/20/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 23, 2008 3:48pm]

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