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After more than a decade of criticism, Highway Patrol reconsiders traffic homicide case of Kevin McGinley

TAMPA — Eleven years after a man died in the middle of Interstate 275, the Florida Highway Patrol is taking a second look at how investigators handled the traffic homicide probe.

The internal review is expected to be finished this week. But it isn't enough to satisfy parents of Kevin McGinley.

The 21-year-old died Feb. 13, 1998, in what the Highway Patrol called a hit-and-run accident. His parents, Hugh and Jill McGinley, have been banging the gong for a deeper look. The Indian Shores couple long ago lost confidence in patrol's theory of how their son died.

He was deliberately pushed into the path of a truck, they say.

Just before the fatal crash, Kevin was involved in a roadside fight. Lackluster work by the Highway Patrol failed to get at the truth and let a criminal to go free, they say.

For 10 years, the patrol has stood by its conclusion that McGinley was in the middle of the interstate of his own accord. Could the latest review say anything different?

The McGinleys doubt it.

And though they've been pushing for another look at the case for years, they question how thoroughly the Highway Patrol can scrutinize its own work, especially when the main investigators involved are no longer with the agency.

"They're doing what they've been doing for 11 years," Hugh McGinley said, calling it "the same whitewash we've been put through time and time again."

• • •

A year ago, the St. Petersburg Times chronicled the McGinley story — the investigative missteps, contradictory testimony and unsettling questions surrounding the case.

On May 6, two months after the story appeared, the patrol decided to investigate the family's claims that the agency ignored evidence and falsified reports, according to an e-mail Hugh McGinley got from Lt. Col. Ernie Duarte.

Then in January, patrol attorney Judson Chapman told McGinley the investigation had been classified as a "criminal matter."

The patrol confirmed to the Times that a review is under way. But the agency spokesman, Capt. Mark Welch, said it cannot comment further, citing pending litigation by the McGinleys.

The scope of the latest review is unclear. Chapman said he believes the findings will be made public despite the lawsuit.

Thomas Reynolds, an attorney for the McGinleys, said it was his understanding that it is a "very limited investigation," focused on whether policies were followed. "I expect it to say that there is no evidence that they didn't comply," Reynolds said.

Cpl. Dennis Jetton and Lt. Stephen Mauriello, the two investigators who spent the most time handling the case, are no longer with the Highway Patrol.

Mauriello retired in 2006. Reached at home Wednesday, he declined comment.

Jetton resigned in 2007 as questions swirled regarding his conduct on another case. He was accused of marrying a woman widowed in an accident he investigated, then benefiting from her insurance settlement after testifying in the case.

The Times left a phone message for Jetton at his sister's home this week, but could not reach him directly for comment.

Hugh McGinley wants an independent investigation. But his appeals to the governor, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the state attorney general for a special prosecutor have been unsuccessful. "Gov. Crist will take no further action in this matter," Charlie Crist's attorney, Robert R. Wheeler, wrote to the couple in July. "I know that you will be disappointed."

Feeling they'd exhausted all other remedies, the McGinleys in November filed a negligence lawsuit against the Highway Patrol, FDLE and Hillsborough County State Attorney's Office. It accuses the patrol of disregarding evidence, fabricating information, filing false reports and refusing to address complaints. It also says the State Attorney's Office did not act responsibly. The suit has moved from state to federal court.

• • •

These days, the McGinleys appear mostly focused on State Attorney Mark Ober's office. They hold him responsible, saying he knowingly overlooked evidence that proves Lt. Mauriello and one of Ober's own investigators misled prosecutors to keep them from pursuing criminal charges in the case.

No one from Ober's office or the attorney representing him in the suit responded to calls for comment Wednesday.

The crux of Hugh McGinley's concern revolves around testimony from a truck driver who passed the scene and told four people at various times that he saw Kevin pushed. McGinley says new evidence shows the driver — whom the patrol considered unreliable — was more trustworthy than the agency made him out to be. And Hugh McGinley believes Ober knowingly overlooked deception by the investigators about the truck driver.

Now, despite the review, McGinley's key frustration is that no other agency seems willing to independently examine the case.

"Best-case scenario," said Reynolds, "would be that there would be a determination that the agencies didn't do what they are constitutionally mandated to do and that there would be a new investigation done."

Staff writer Michael Van Sickler contributed to this report. Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at rcatalanello@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3383.

After more than a decade of criticism, Highway Patrol reconsiders traffic homicide case of Kevin McGinley 03/18/09 [Last modified: Thursday, March 19, 2009 10:48am]

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