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Star athlete is first witness at trial

One of the state's top high school athletes testified Monday as a key prosecution witness in the attempted first-degree murder trial of a 17-year-old youth.

Darren Hambrick, a state-champion football and track-and-field athlete who graduated from Pasco High on Friday, was the first witness called by prosecutor Matt Destry in the trial of Johnny McPhail Jr. The trial continues today.

McPhail is charged with shooting James Brown, 30, five times with a handgun in November outside Cypress Manor Apartments in Lacoochee. At least three of the shots struck Brown from behind. McPhail was 16 when the shooting occurred but is being charged as an adult.

In her opening argument, public defender Laurie Chane did not contest her client's involvement, but suggested he acted in self-defense after Brown fired a shotgun over McPhail's head for the second time in three days.

"Johnny shot James Brown," Chane told the jury. "That's one thing you all don't have to decide.

"(But) he had two options: If he ran, he died. Shot in the back. If he shot back, he lived. Johnny did the only thing he thought he could do _ he fired back."

But Destry argued that the crime was premeditated, and he used Hambrick's testimony to support that.

McPhail and Brown, both of Dade City, had argued while hanging out with numerous other friends at a Lacoochee bar Nov. 1, two days before the shooting, Destry said.

Witnesses said that at the bar, Brown threatened McPhail with a shotgun and fired the gun over McPhail's head.

Hambrick, 17, testified that he is a good friend of Brown's and that he was dating McPhail's sister at the time of the incident. Before the shooting, Hambrick said, McPhail told him of his intentions.

"Johnny said he didn't like anyone pulling a gun on him and he had to get him back," Hambrick said.

Brown was struck three times in the lower back and buttocks and once in the neck and the hand. He was flown to St. Joseph's Hospital in Tampa, where emergency surgery saved his life, Destry said.

To bolster Hambrick's credibility as a witness, Destry had him testify about the football scholarship he has been offered from the University of Florida.

Hambrick played linebacker and running back for the Pasco High football team that went 14-0 and won the Class 3A state championship last season.

He was also a 3A state champion in the high jump and set a state record by qualifying in five track and field events. He finished second in the state decathlon. He also led Pasco's district-champion basketball team.

Hambrick acknowledged under Chane's cross-examination that his scholarship to Florida is pending the results of his latest ACT test. He has not satisfied the minimum NCAA requirement on the test yet.

Hambrick said he did not want to testify in the trial, but received a subpoena Friday at the graduation ceremony.

"I didn't want to be a part of this," he said.