For months Edward Lewis Humphrey was the key suspect in the horrific slayings of five Gainesville students. But Friday, a grand jury declared there was no probable cause to charge the 20-year-old former University of Florida freshman. The panel's action doesn't take Humphrey out of jeopardy, though. And legal experts say that even if Humphrey is innocent, he'll carry the stigma of the killings with him the rest of his days.
"The grand jury said it's not true that he probably did it, but he's still left in limbo," said Pat Doherty, a prominent Pinellas County defense lawyer. "If any evidence comes out later, he can still be indicted.
"But when they first arrested him (for beating his grandmother), they basically trashed him in the press and said he was a serial killer."
Doherty said authorities later tried to show a connection between Humphrey and Danny Rolling, the Louisiana drifter who was indicted Friday in the Gainesville killings. "So there will always be an association between him and the killer," Doherty said, and some people will say investigators just couldn't dig up the proof.
"It's a real tragedy for him and his family."
The grand jury considered evidence against Humphrey but declined to indict him. Among the evidence was a pubic hair _ similar to Humphrey's _ found at a murder scene, and statements from two witnesses who said they saw Humphrey and Rolling together.
Humphrey, who was released from state prison in September after serving 10 months for beating his grandmother, had no comment Friday on the grand jury's action. But his attorney, Donald Lykkebak of Orlando, said: "The prolonged investigation has been emotionally and financially exhausting. Edward has no feeling of elation. The lack of indictment is the result that he and I both expected."
Humphrey has said he plans to have plastic surgery to remove facial scars from an automobile accident. He also said he hopes to resume his studies _ but not at the University of Florida.
Family trouble, mental problems and sheer coincidence seem to be the main factors that put Ed Humphrey into legal limbo.
Few who knew him in his early high school days dreamed he would ever become a murder suspect.
He was a blond, smooth-skinned, affable teen-ager who made good grades, played football and enjoyed surfing with a group of friends in the swells off Indialantic, a town on Florida's east coast.
But after the death of his grandfather and his parents' bitter divorce, Humphrey's personality began to disintegrate while he was a senior at Melbourne High School.
There were mood swings, sudden belligerence and two auto crashes that friends thought were suicide attempts. The accidents left him with a rod in his leg and scars on his face, and a Lithium prescription kept him chunky and bloated-looking.
Humphrey was hospitalized a half-dozen times, diagnosed as a manic-depressive. Police were called to his house repeatedly after reports he had gone "berserk."
By August 1990, when Humphrey enrolled as a freshman at the University of Florida, some close to him feared his violently unpredictable behavior was worsening.
Then came the killings.
After five students were found brutally slain, a shocked and terrified community demanded quick police action, and the media descended on Gainesville to monitor investigators' every move.
Humphrey quickly became a suspect.
He had a violent history, an unstable personality. He knew the southwest neighborhoods where the killings took place. And residents there had seen the scar-faced youth wandering around at odd times carrying long knives.
The task force investigating the killings put Humphrey under surveillance, and when a police spokesman described him as "an extremely valuable suspect," the media zeroed in on him.
On Aug. 30, 1990, four days after the first victim was found, Humphrey was arrested after a fight with his grandmother and charged with battery.
Humphrey's bail was set at $1-millionand he remained behind bars until well after investigators set their sights on a new suspect: Danny Rolling.
After his arrest, Humphrey lived in a 10-foot-by-10-foot concrete cell at the Brevard County Jail. His public defender, J. R. Russo, said Humphrey's mental state deteriorated while he was jailed.
"We treat our animals in our society better than Ed Humphrey has been treated," Russo said as he tried unsuccessfully to persuade a judge to free his client.
The publicity about the Gainesville slayings made it impossible to find a private psychiatric facility to take Humphrey, and he was sentenced to the Corrections Mental Institution in Chattahoochee, where he landed among the most violent and deranged criminals in the state.
That setting seemed to fit what investigators and the media had made of Ed Humphrey, said his brother George, a 1991 University of Florida graduate who was his biggest defender.
The image of him from law enforcement and the news media is that "he's a creature, he's a monster," George Humphrey said. "My brother is in jail now because of the image Gainesville gave him, not because of anything he did."
On Wednesday, his grandmother, Elna Hlavaty, died at age 80 after suffering a heart attack in Indialantic. Her family said she collapsed after arguing with a relative about talking to a reporter.
Family members had asked that the media not disrupt their privacy during the grand jury proceedings, but a reporter persisted in interviewing Mrs. Hlavaty. Her daughter overheard her, and the argument ensued.
"This death is devastating to us as a family. The world is destroying us," said George Humphrey in a statement issued after the death. "Grandmother is another victim of those crimes."
Mrs. Hlavaty died about 56 hours before the grand jury decided her grandson Ed should not be charged in the Gainesville murders. Her funeral is today.