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Two men on trial in Pinellas in Christmas 2011 killing

Santonio Smith, front left, and Letrell McKnight, front right, attend jury selection Monday in a Pinellas Justice Center courtroom. They are charged with murdering Stacia Berman.

SCOTT KEELER | Times

Santonio Smith, front left, and Letrell McKnight, front right, attend jury selection Monday in a Pinellas Justice Center courtroom. They are charged with murdering Stacia Berman.

Like a scene from a grisly crime show, jurors on Tuesday listened to the vivid and horrifying story of how Stacia Berman's body was retrieved from Lake Maggiore in St. Petersburg, as alligators lurked nearby.

"CSI St. Petersburg, I guess," the prosecutor said, and there was a reason he alluded to the popular Crime Scene Investigation programs.

Berman, who was 42, had an electrical cord looped around her neck when she was found in the lake on Christmas Day 2011. Two plastic bags were wrapped around her head, so tightly a receipt was found intact inside.

The receipt led police to a Walgreens, where surveillance video from the time on the receipt, 11:34 p.m. on Christmas Eve, showed a man named Letrell McKnight buying bleach and Clorox cleaner when everyone else was "buying ribbons and bows," Assistant State Attorney Fred Schaub said.

"Why is that important?" Schaub asked. "Because it was those bags with that receipt that was put over her head and tied tightly. And it's this man right here, Mr. McKnight, that purchased those items."

McKnight and Santonio Smith, both 23, are on trial this week, accused of first-degree murder.

Berman, 42, was a cocaine addict who frequented an apartment at 527 Eighth St. N with several other crack users. She was there that Christmas Eve, but left. Afterward, Schaub said, Smith came to believe Berman had stolen shoes he was planning to give his children for Christmas.

So Berman was lured back to the apartment, Schaub said. Smith and McKnight were there along with a third man, Darryl "Rico" Williams, who will be tried later.

Schaub provided a grisly account of what happened next. He said Smith "jumped on her so hard he broke her ribs."

She was beaten. Bleach was poured onto her body, and she also was forced to drink it. She was burned with an iron. "Skin was falling off her body, she was crying," Schaub said.

Part of this account is based on a witness, a man named Daryl Davis, who testified on Tuesday that he went to the apartment that day to buy and use crack.

He described the men hitting and kicking Berman, tossing her around the house, and forcing her to go upstairs. Smith came back down to get the iron, he said, and returned upstairs.

When they brought her back down, she was unclothed, had black eyes and burn marks on her body, Davis testified on Tuesday.

Neighbors later saw men carrying what appeared to be a body and putting it into the trunk of a car.

Schaub said it's clear Smith and McKnight killed Berman and should be convicted of premeditated murder. But he said they also could be found guilty under what is known as felony murder. Schaub said both men were kidnapping Berman as she was tortured, and she died as a result of that felony crime.

But defense attorneys urged jurors to take a close look at the state's case before making conclusions.

"Mr. McKnight, we believe the evidence will show, did not touch Stacia Berman," said attorney John Trevena. He criticized the kidnapping claim, saying it's not like Berman was taken anywhere against her will, because she spent so much time at the apartment that neighbors thought she lived there. And unlike Smith, McKnight had no motive, Trevena said

Smith's attorney, Keith Hammond, urged jurors to think hard about the credibility of the state's witnesses. Some may say they heard Berman's cries or saw her body being moved, but "none of these people called 911 and said, 'There's someone that's just been carried into the car,' " Hammond said.

Curtis Krueger can be reached at ckrueger@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8232. Twitter: @ckruegertimes.

Two men on trial in Pinellas in Christmas 2011 killing 06/18/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 19, 2013 1:40am]

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