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Video shows brutality of St. Petersburg convenience store slayings, start to finish

ST. PETERSBURG — Now that surveillance cameras are watching virtually every store and parking lot, it's increasingly common to see footage of robberies, fights and even shootings.

But the disturbing video of a double murder in downtown St. Petersburg is something different.

In graphic detail, with eight different cameras and relatively good sound, the video shows the entire August 2008 robbery of Central Food Mart, and the shootings of three men.

Even in an era when video has become ubiquitous, prosecutors say this stands out as perhaps the clearest and most complete recording ever of a local murder — and one of the most powerful pieces of evidence they could hope to work with.

"No. 1, in the majority of cases there is no video," said Bruce Bartlett, chief assistant state attorney for Pinellas and Pasco counties. "No. 2, in the ones you do have video, it's usually fairly spotty, and you don't have the quality. The difference is this encompasses the entire incident, from a variety of angles."

Bartlett said the video footage, which was released to the St. Petersburg Times this week, "depicts the commission of the offense in its entirety, from start to finish, and shows the coldness and the brutality."

He asks: "What can a defendant say about that if he takes the stand? Nothing."

That, of course, remains to be seen as the case works its way through the court system. Khadafy Mullens, 26, and Spencer Peeples, 29, have pleaded not guilty.

But the video does show how increasingly sophisticated technology provides formidable evidence for criminal cases. The eight cameras combined captured more than an hour's worth of images from different angles of the roughly 10-minute robbery.

The robbery occurred at 2157 Central Ave., half a dozen blocks west of Tropicana Field, about 6:30 p.m., when it was still light outside.

Video tells the story: Two men walk in and encounter the store owner, Mohammad Uddin, 44. They wave a handgun and force Uddin to the floor. They demand his car keys. They steal lottery tickets, taking several minutes to stuff them into plastic bags. Meanwhile, a customer, Ronald Hayworth, 50, is in the store.

One of the robbers — authorities say it is Peeples — leaves the store.

Then the shooting starts. The other robber — prosecutors say it's Mullens — sees Uddin dialing a telephone. He fires at Uddin, killing him. Next he grabs the customer, Hayworth, swings him around, and shoots him on the floor.

Another man, Albert Barton, 69, is outside the store and appears to be entering. The robber yanks Barton inside and fires at him. Barton falls, but fights back, and at one point appears to grab at the handgun.

Throughout most of the incident, the robbers show little emotion, even as the shooter fights with Barton over his gun.

After the shootings, the shooter picks up his bag of lottery tickets and walks out the store, with sirens already blaring in the background.

Incredibly, Barton survives the attack. He walks out of the store, and flags down the emergency workers who will begin to treat him for his wounds. The Times could not locate Barton for this story.

The two suspects were arrested within hours of the crime.

The killings were part of a string of convenience store violence in South Pinellas last year that set the community on edge and raised questions about crime fighting efforts.

The robbers were obviously aware of surveillance videos, because they tried to disable the system. But they chose a non-working system, not the one that was actually recording them.

Even compelling videos don't always lead to criminal convictions. Bjorn Brunvand, a veteran criminal attorney, said cases of mistaken identity do occur. If so, an attorney could argue that the video "looks like my client, but they got the wrong guy."

In other cases, especially when video is fuzzy or the crime occurs off camera, an attorney may argue that the video is incomplete and provides a misleading impression.

"Different people interpret it in different ways," Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger said.

But a complete and clear video can make a very powerful impression on a jury, said Harvey Moore, a well-known Tampa trial consultant and sociologist.

"Eight views in a store, then you've pretty much put to rest a variety of opportunities a defendant might have to offer an alternative interpretation," said Moore, who has not seen the videos in this case.

Juries may see more evidence like this in the future. At Privacy Electronics in Pinellas Park, vice president Carrissa Peros said it's now common for convenience stores to have eight cameras. She said a pair of four-camera systems starts at about $1,200.

Mullens' public defender, Dudley Clapp, would not comment about his defense strategy, and said most of the work in the case so far has been taking depositions of police. Peeples' attorney could not be reached.

The trial has not yet been scheduled. Prosecutors have said they will seek the death penalty.

Eight cameras with sound recorded the August 2008 robbery of a St. Petersburg convenience store and the shootings of three men.

Pinellas/Pasco Attorney’s Office

Eight cameras with sound recorded the August 2008 robbery of a St. Petersburg convenience store and the shootings of three men.

Video shows brutality of St. Petersburg convenience store slayings, start to finish 12/05/09 [Last modified: Sunday, December 6, 2009 12:51pm]
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