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St. Petersburg man acquitted of murder

On Tuesday, 32-year-old Anthony Howard of St. Petersburg went to trial, facing a first-degree murder charge and possibly life in prison.

Late Friday night, he walked out of the courthouse a free man, after spending 167 days behind bars.

After the state was finished presenting its case against Howard, Circuit Judge R. Grable Stoutamire found that there was not enough evidence to support a first-degree murder charge and reduced it to second-degree murder, which holds a substantially less severe penalty.

Still, jurors spent nearly nine hours poring over evidence before determining there was not enough to convict Howard of shooting Cynthia Coston of St. Petersburg last Christmas Eve near the Palm View apartment complex, 2785 56th Ter. S.

Prosecutor William Loughery told the jury that the only scenario that made sense was the one in which Howard killed Coston.

Witnesses claimed to see the two arguing at some point in the night. But there were no witnesses who saw Howard shoot Coston. Howard was later overheard to threaten a man named Eric Harris and yell at him: "You set me up."

Loughery said Howard was angry at Harris and Coston for setting him up somehow.

Witnesses say they saw two cars that night. Both are owned by Howard. And the witnesses said the shots came from a white Monte Carlo that is missing.

So is Howard's white Monte Carlo, which Loughery said he ditched somewhere after the murder. Howard's wife testified that they sold the car. But the title company said there is no record of a sale and the Howards still are making payments on it.

St. Petersburg attorney Michael Schwartzberg said the case was weak from the beginning, with no evidence. Police officers conducted most of their investigation after the arrest.

Schwartzberg said Howard was arrested after he was shown a picture of Coston and said he had never seen her before. That was the only statement Howard ever made, he said.

Schwartzberg called the investigation an example of terrible police work and said it was filled with "bald-faced lies."

"It was a purely circumstantial case," Schwartzberg said. "The jury did what needed to be done in this case."

Loughery, who could not be reached for comment after the verdict, told jurors earlier that Schwartzberg's allegation of lies was a smoke screen to divert the jury's attention from the case.

As Howard's family left the courthouse, they danced with joy in the parking lot.