BROOKSVILLE — Prosecutors say Stanley Eckard killed his younger brother, Sean, three years ago because of a woman.
On Wednesday, the second day of Eckard's first-degree murder trial, that woman took the stand.
During questioning by assistant state attorney Pete Magrino, Samantha Rowe recalled a conversation with Stanley Eckard on June 19, 2010. She testified that Stanley told her Sean had packed up and left the state.
Earlier that day, however, Stanley had buried the body of 19-year-old Sean in the side yard of the Spring Hill home the brothers shared with their parents.
Rowe, who was dating Sean at the time, didn't know that.
"He told me he was a lot more relaxed now that Sean had left, and there wasn't so much tension in the house anymore," Rowe said.
Rowe, whose last name was Nicholson then, said Stanley told her that they could get back together now that Sean was gone. She told him there was no such thing as "back together" because there was never a "together" in the first place. They had only hung out alone once, she testified, when Stanley told her he had a crush on her.
Then, as they sat in Rowe's car a couple of blocks away from the Eckard home, they kissed.
Magrino is trying to convince jurors that Rowe was on Stanley Eckard's mind when he went into Sean's bedroom earlier that morning. Within moments, Sean was dead.
Magrino said during his opening argument Tuesday that Stanley's own statements to detectives after his arrest indicated he planned to kill his brother because of simmering resentment, much of it over Rowe. Chief assistant public defender Alan Fanter told jurors Sean's death happened accidentally during a struggle, when the younger man hit his head on a night stand.
A medical examiner testified Tuesday that Sean suffered a fractured skull and a broken neck from blunt force trauma. She said it was possible those injuries were caused by hitting his head during a fall.
The defense's case is complicated by what Stanley, now 24, admits he did after realizing Sean was dead. Instead of calling for help, he hoisted his brother's body out the bedroom window and buried him in a shallow grave.
Prosecutors say Stanley then used Sean's cellphone to send text messages to Rowe.
"I received messages from Sean's phone telling me he left and was going to California, and he was breaking up with me," Rowe testified Wednesday. "I texted (Stanley) and said he was right about Sean."
Rowe said Stanley had warned her that Sean was just using her and would soon move on to another woman.
After receiving Rowe's message, Stanley told her to call him. She did.
"He said he just woke up, he didn't know what was going on, his mom was crying, Sean's things were gone and they think he was walking on the interstate," Rowe recalled.
Their meeting in the car happened later that day.
During cross-examination, Fanter tried to show jurors that there was more to the relationship between Stanley and Rowe.
He noted a series of sexually explicit text messages Rowe sent to Stanley at the end of May and more flirtatious messages she sent after they kissed in the car that Saturday in June. In one of the messages, she told him she wanted to see him again.
Fanter is also trying to convince jurors that Sean's temper had become more volatile after a bout with encephalitis a couple of years earlier, and that he was angry with his brother about Rowe.
Rowe acknowledged that Sean was acting strangely in the week before his death, especially on Friday night, the last time she saw him alive.
"Did he tell you he thought the world was going to end that night and kept asking if you knew how much he loved you?" Fanter asked.
Yes, Rowe replied.
The brothers' father, Samuel Eckard, discovered Sean's body the following Monday.
Jurors on Wednesday watched a video of the crime scene taken by investigators. It included footage of Sean's dirt-caked body, in a fetal position in the hole his brother dug for him.
When the images appeared, Stanley looked away. His father, sitting two rows behind him, sobbed quietly.
Samuel Eckard and his wife, Donna, have said they believe Stanley's account of what caused Sean's death, and they have criticized prosecutors for pursuing a murder charge.
The trial is expected to finish this week.
Reach Tony Marrero at email@example.com or (352) 848-1431.