Thursday, May 24, 2018
News Roundup

Latest mystery in Clearwater murder case is defendant Roman Izzo's medical condition

LARGO — Four weeks ago, a murder suspect crashed his motorcycle on Interstate 275.

A witness said it looked like the pavement "shaved off half his face."

Authorities called his injuries "critical."

No one from his family, his defense team or the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office has publicly explained the extent of Army Maj. Roman Izzo's injuries — or whether he will ever be well enough to stand trial.

A hearing on Monday could have answered some of those questions.

But a complicated case became even more tangled when what should have been a routine public hearing was basically held in secret, with three lawyers and the judge huddled at the bench holding a lengthy, heated conversation in private.

At one point, Pinellas Circuit Judge Chris Helinger pointed at defense lawyer Stephen Romine and said: "I'm the judge. You're the lawyer."

For 25 minutes, as other criminal defendants waited for their own cases to be called, the group went back and forth. After it was over, Helinger made a brief statement:

There will be another hearing about an ankle monitor this week.

In April, there will be a "status update." And that was that.

The Tampa Bay Times has requested a recording of the bench conference, but it will not be available for several days.

After the hearing, out in the hallway, both Romine and prosecutor Greg Baird were equally tight-lipped.

"We're going to have a hearing," said Baird, before refusing to answer other questions and hurrying away.

"We're dealing with issues related to his condition," said Romine, who took a lengthy pause to think about how he would offer even that meager statement.

The secrecy extended to Izzo's family, who declined to comment, and to a friend of the victim, who didn't know what the private hearing was about.

This strange chapter is in line with the rest of a strange case.

In November 2011, Vincent Lee, 43, was found dead in his Clearwater condominium.

For two years, detectives investigated. Their official theory goes like this:

Lee was once married to Izzo's current wife. Izzo became angry because Lee would not let the family move out of state.

On the evening of Nov. 15, Izzo left Columbus, Ga., sometime after 7 p.m. He drove 6½ hours to Clearwater and killed Lee sometime around 2:30 a.m. Then he drove 6½ hours back to Georgia, making it in time for work at Fort Benning by about 9 a.m.

There was no physical evidence connecting Izzo, 37, to the crime.

But authorities collected enough circumstantial clues — like computer searches for the same kind of pistol used in the shooting and a book he ordered on homicide investigations — to get a grand jury to indict Izzo on a charge of first-degree murder.

Then, late last year, Izzo's lawyer offered evidence that called into doubt a key tenet of the case.

Romine filed a motion indicating that Izzo could not have been in Clearwater at the time the murder took place because the body's "lividity" wasn't fixed — that is, the body still blanched and the blood had not settled more than 27 hours after Lee was supposedly killed.

In a deposition, medical examiner Dr. Wayne Kurz said it was "unusual" for lividity not to be fixed after such a long time. Romine argued that this means there was no way for Izzo to kill Lee and get back to his base the following morning.

It seemed like a major break for the defense team. Then came the crash.

Izzo was headed north on I-275 in St. Petersburg about 8:40 p.m. on Dec. 14.

A Toyota Avalon slowed down because of a minor crash on the highway ahead, according to the Florida Highway Patrol. Izzo did not stop in time, lowered the bike to the pavement and tumbled off, the FHP said. He was not wearing a helmet.

"His head slapped the ground and it shaved off half his face," said a witness, Josey Aaron Wales Mathews. "He was, like, snoring. You could see blood coming out of his nose. He was all messed up."

Izzo was rushed to an undisclosed hospital, where he has remained since the crash. His injuries, whatever they are, now shape the criminal case.

The court still must determine whether Izzo can be treated by doctors elsewhere. It must figure out whether his brain has recovered enough for him to be "competent." And, should his injuries be so serious that he cannot function, the state must decide how — or if — it will move ahead with the criminal case.

Times reporter Anthony Cormier can be reached at [email protected]

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