The long holiday weekend cost James Austin eight years. Austin, 21, was to go to trial Tuesday morning on a second-degree murder charge in connection with the Oct. 11 stabbing death of Derrick Dennard. The stabbing occurred in south Brooksville after a fight over Dennard's wife between Austin, Dennard and a third man.
But instead of going to trial, Austin accepted a last-minute plea agreement that calls for him to spend the next 30 years in prison.
Last Friday, Austin rejected a plea offer from the state of 22 years in prison. The state rescinded that offer Tuesday. But after talking to his father Tuesday afternoon, Austin decided to take the 30 years and avoid the possibility of a life term.
"I just told him that I thought he should take it because this way he has a chance to get his life back together," said Austin's father, Andrew Austin of Wildwood. "He can get into prison and learn a trade. Maybe get his high school diploma and put this behind him."
The plea agreement came after a day of legal arguments that began with a new charge against Austin. Prosecutors and court testimony said events in the case proceeded like this:
Austin originally was charged Oct. 11 with second-degree murder, armed burglary of a structure and carrying a concealed weapon.
The charges were filed after an early morning fight in Dennard's house at 337 Union St. Dennard was stabbed once in the right side of his chest during the fight, which began after Dennard fought with his estranged wife, Belinda, leading her to call Austin, whom she had been dating.
Dennard died on the front lawn of his home after struggling with Austin over the knife. An associate medical examiner was to testify during the trial that Dennard would not have died had the fight not continued after the stabbing.
While preparing for trial in the past week, Assistant State Attorney Jim Dysart realized that an additional charge of burglary of a structure with assault also could be filed against Austin. Dysart then spent the weekend preparing to prosecute Austin on the new charge and the original three counts.
The new charge, a felony with a maximum punishment of life in prison, was added late Friday and amended in court Tuesday morning.
Assistant Public Defender Alan Fanter, who represented Austin, argued Tuesday morning that the new charge substantially reduced his ability to defend Austin against all the charges. Fanter moved for dismissal of the new charge, claiming prosecutors had "sandbagged" him by filing it at the last minute.
But Circuit Judge Jack Springstead ruled that the trial on all the charges could go on as planned once Fanter had a chance to reinterview witnesses to Dennard's death.
That touched off a new round of plea negotiations that resulted in Austin's decision to plead no contest rather than take his chances on all four charges before a jury.
Springstead found Austin guilty of second-degree murder and armed burglary and then dropped the two other charges. Austin was sentenced to the 30-year term and ordered to pay $225 in court costs once he is released.
Florida's early release program, a result of overcrowded conditions in the state's prisons, probably will allow Austin to be freed in nine or 10 years.
"It was in his best interest to accept the state's offer," Fanter said. "He was facing a life sentence."
Brooksville police Lt. Terry Chapman, who investigated Dennard's death and filed the original charges against Austin, said the plea agreement was welcomed by his department because it reduced the amount of time officers would have to spend in court.
"I think just about every one of us would have had to spend a week testifying over here," Chapman said. "We're thrilled to death by the plea. Jim Dysart did a great job in working this out. I mean, if the guy went to trial and was convicted, he probably would have gotten only 30 years anyway."
The plea ends the state's prosecution in Dennard's death, one of two murders to occur in Hernando County in 1989. The third man involved in the fight leading to the stabbing of Dennard, Jimmerson Hillery of Brooksville, pleaded no contest last week to being a principal to second-degree murder.
Under terms of Hillery's plea agreement, he is scheduled to be sentenced March 15 to seven years in prison.
None of Dennard's family members was in court Tuesday morning. But Dysart said the family was traveling to Brooksville from Dennard's hometown of Miami and would not object to the 30-year sentence for Austin.