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Judge criticized for gang member's low bail in murder case

Sevell C. Brown III, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference president, and Geeta Peterson, the victim’s widow, meet the media. “We’re in fear right now,’’ she said.

CHRIS ZUPPA | Times

Sevell C. Brown III, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference president, and Geeta Peterson, the victim’s widow, meet the media. “We’re in fear right now,’’ she said.

ST. PETERSBURG — Gary Phonsouk, 19, is charged with first-degree murder.

He is a member of Asian Pride, a criminal gang linked to drugs, violence and murder.

He has been accused of witness intimidation while being held in the county jail.

He has been accused of plotting to flee to Thailand.

Yet, despite the fact that most first-degree murder suspects are held without bail, Phonsouk walked out of jail Thursday.

Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Philip Federico set his bail at $25,000 at a hearing that morning after delaying his murder trial and allowing prosecutors to make a last-second addition to their witness list.

Reaction was swift and strong as Phonsouk went home to Ruskin with his parents.

That's "absolutely too low a bond," said Chief Assistant State Attorney Bruce Bartlett.

"It is a smack in the face," said Southern Christian Leadership Conference president Sevell C. Brown III.

To the state, the judge ignored warnings that Phonsouk is a flight risk.

To the victim's family, the judge ignored warnings that Phonsouk is a danger to the community.

To community activists, the judge ignored the kind of message that was being sent to criminal gangs.

Defense attorney Eric Kuske had a different take: The judge saved the state's case.

"This was something he really struggled with," he said, "but he did what he thought was right."

• • •

Altron Peterson, 28, was shot dead the morning of July 1, 2007. Authorities say he was buying ecstasy from Kevin Yun, an Asian Pride member, at a Kenneth City apartment.

But authorities say the deal was a set up. Armed and masked, fellow gang members Lee Some and Gary Phonsouk burst inside. Some is accused of fatally shooting Peterson as he tried to run.

But by the time Pinellas detectives identified Some as the shooter, he had already fled to Cambodia, authorities say.

His current whereabouts are unknown.

• • •

A key state witness said she overheard Some and Phonsouk brag about their roles in the robbery and murder. But her story changed just before Phonsouk's trial, which was set for Tuesday.

"The witness utilized what we would refer to as 'selective memory,' " Bartlett said. "She forgot some of the most important parts."

It was the same witness, authorities say, that Phonsouk was recorded in jail discussing how to silence. "The tapes suggested a confrontation or an attempt to contact or manipulate a witness," Bartlett said.

Phonsouk also was caught on jail tapes plotting to leave the country to escape prosecution.

So the state had to turn to a witness it had said it would not use: Kevin Yun.

Yun always wanted to testify, but the state didn't want to strike a deal with him.

Now, though, the state didn't have a choice.

Yun, now 19, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder on Tuesday. In exchange for his testimony, he was given 20 years in prison.

• • •

On Thursday, the defense requested bail for Phonsouk.

The judge didn't allow a sheriff's detective or the victim's family to testify at the hearing.

"If he had heard us he would know we're in fear right now," said the victim's wife, Geeta Peterson, 33. "It's the same fear we felt that night when I had a gun to my face."

The judge still seemed miffed about the prosecution's last-minute maneuvers.

"I understand that the judge was not happy with the fact that we had to add a witness," Bartlett said. "That was due to circumstances beyond our control.

"But I respectfully disagree with the court's reaction of giving a $25,000 bond to an individual who is a threat to our community."

Community activists also criticized the judge.

They've been fighting the "no snitching" code that has hampered the investigation into last month's gang-related murder of 8-year-old Paris Whitehead-Hamilton.

Letting a known gang member walk on a low bail, they said, undermines that message.

"We are asking people to come forward with information, we are asking them to risk their safety," said state Rep. Darryl Rouson. "The last thing we want people to think is there's a judge up there who will turn that cat loose on a serious crime."

• • •

Judge Federico can't comment on a pending case, said 6th Judicial Circuit spokesman Ron Stuart.

But Stuart pointed to the numerous restrictions placed Phonsouk while he's free on bail: He must wear a GPS monitoring device, he is restricted to his parents' house or lawyer's office; he must turn in his passport; and he must have no contact with co-defendants or victims.

Kuske, the defense attorney, said that the judge gave a litany of reasons for the bail.

"A brand new witness was called that changed the entire course of the case after Mr. Phonsouk had been in jail for 500 days," Kuske said. "It's as if the case started from scratch again."

The new trial date is in October. The judge felt it wouldn't be fair to hold the defendant for another six months because of the state's delay.

"I asked for $25,000," Kuske said. "His family doesn't have much money. A bond that somebody can't afford is tantamount to no bond."

Kuske also pointed out that it was the judge who allowed Yun to be added as a last-minute state witness.

"If he wanted to make this case go away, if he was soft on crime, or if he was looking to let Mr. Phonsouk go," he said, "he would not have let Mr. Yun testify."

Jamal Thalji can be reached at thalji@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8472.

Judge criticized for gang member's low bail in murder case 05/14/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 20, 2009 4:59pm]
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