A jury has acquitted a West Virginia man of murder and armed robbery charges in the stabbing death of a Largo woman on Interstate 95 near Hardeeville. Ralph Martin Garner, 34, of Wheeling, W.Va., contended in the three-day trial that he was an unsuspecting hitchhiker July 6 when the crime occurred.
"I was trying to get back home," he said before the verdict was announced Friday. "I did have only a couple of dollars, but I don't hurt people."
During three and a half hours of deliberations, the Jasper County jury twice asked Judge Ralph King Anderson for legal clarifications before delivering its verdict.
Michael Eugene Elkins, 35, of Gates, N.C., picked up Garner in Jacksonville. He faces trial on murder and robbery charges in the slaying of Patricia N. Whitt, 59, of Largo.
Elkins shook his head when Garner's acquittal was announced.
Garner, a carpenter, said he had been hitchhiking from Orlando to North Carolina looking for carpentry work in the wake of Hurricane Hugo.
"The testimony was subject to two interpretations," said prosecutor Randolph Murdaugh III, who sought the death penalty against Garner. "Obviously the jury took one that was not mine. I respect the decision. I have no qualms with it."
Mrs. Whitt, who was driving from Largo to Tryon, N.C., to meet her husband, was helped by Garner and Elkins about 18 miles south of Savannah, Ga., when her car overheated.
Later, with Mrs. Whitt driving behind them, Elkins feigned car trouble by pulling off I-95 near a weigh station about three miles south of Hardeeville, authorities said.
According to testimony, when Mrs. Whitt stopped to return the favor, Elkins pulled a knife on the surprised Garner and ordered him to help rob her.
Elkins then went "into a frenzy," said Garner's attorney Gerald Kelly. Kelly said Elkins repeatedly stabbed the woman, forcibly removed her diamond rings and took other items from her car.
Garner testified Thursday that Elkins had screamed for him to grab the woman's hands during the attack and that he started to comply out of fear but then took her hands to drag her from Elkins.
Mrs. Whitt died shortly after paramedics reached the scene, pathologist Michael Ward of the Medical University of South Carolina said.
Garner was arrested the same night on the highway and remained in the Jasper County Jail until his release Friday. Elkins escaped to Dallas, where he was picked up by the FBI a week later, after he was turned in by a woman companion.
Asked if he would ever return to Jasper County, Garner said: "If I do, I damned sure won't be hitchhiking."