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New trial starts this week for officer's killer

The one thing everyone agrees on is that Lorenzo Jenkins killed Belleair police Officer Jeffery Tackett on June 13.

But after that lies the argument.

This week prosecutors again will try to prove that Jenkins murdered Tackett in cold blood.

And defense attorneys will try to convince a jury that Tackett's shooting was an accident, something Jenkins didn't intend to happen.

Last month both sides spent four days trying Jenkins. They picked a jury, and the prosecution, led by State Attorney Bernie McCabe, presented most of its case.

Then, suddenly, defense attorney Michael Schwartzberg moved for a mistrial because of controversial evidence. Despite prosecutors' objections, Circuit Judge Douglas Baird granted the motion. The jury went home without deciding Jenkins' guilt.

Starting today, prosecutors and defense attorneys will begin picking a new jury for the man accused of murdering the first law enforcement officer killed in the line of duty in Pinellas County in nine years. Finding an impartial jury may be harder this time because prosecutors and defense attorneys publicly revealed most of their strategy during last month's trial.

The night of the murder, the 28-year-old Tackett went alone to investigate a report of odd clicking noises at a Belleair condominium. The clicking turned out to be the sound of a burglar trying to break through a glass door.

Police say Tackett had nabbed the burglar _ Jenkins, 32, of Clearwater _ and was trying to handcuff him when Jenkins grabbed Tackett's .45-caliber pistol and shot him, then fled.

Assistant State Attorney Robert Lewis told the jury last month that Jenkins was "a man desperate enough to do anything to keep from being taken into custody," including killing Tackett.

After the shooting, Jenkins was seen with a handcuff on one wrist. His wife, Kathy, and some of her friends helped him remove it, witnesses said, but then she began worrying about the man he said he'd shot, and turned him in.

Schwartzberg said Jenkins is guilty of killing Tackett _ but not on purpose. Defense lawyers hope the jury will convict Jenkins of third-degree murder, not first-degree, as prosecutors seek.

If Jenkins is convicted of first-degree murder, he could be sentenced to life in prison with no chance for parole, or he could be sentenced to death. A conviction for third-degree murder might bring him a sentence of 30 years, Schwartzberg said.

The shot that killed Tackett hit him "at such a fluke angle" that it couldn't be intentional, Schwartzberg said. The bullet cut through his right thigh and severed the main artery in his leg before lodging in his scrotum.

Tackett bled to death before other officers found him. Largo paramedic Paul Lee testified that by the time he got to Tackett, he was white from loss of blood.

On the last full day of last month's trial, an FBI expert testified that he had test-fired Tackett's gun at cloth similar to the kind used in Tackett's uniform, which had no gunpowder residue on it. The expert said he had to fire the gun from at least 5 feet to avoid leaving residue on the cloth.

That would tend to disprove the defense's contention that the gun went off during a hand-to-hand struggle. Schwartzberg called the gun tests "difficult" for the defense to deal with.

What made it more difficult, he contended to Judge Baird, was that prosecutors hadn't told the defense about the tests. Under Florida's rules for criminal trials, both sides are supposed to disclose all their evidence before the trial.

Prosecutors said that they included a mention of the gun tests on two lists of evidence they provided the defense, and that it was up to Jenkins' lawyers to find out what the test results were.

Baird, saying he was concerned a conviction might be overturned, ordered the mistrial.

Prosecutors are expected to present the same case to the new jury this week. Schwartzberg would not say whether he would alter the defense.

Schwartzberg said Friday the defense had consulted its own gun expert, but had not decided whether to call the expert as a witness.

A larger question may be whether a jury can be chosen as easily this time around. Last month's trial took place six months after Tackett's death, when publicity about the case had faded from public consciousness. Throughout that trial there were daily media reports, and the memories of that coverage still may be fresh in the minds of potential jurors.

Just in case too many would-be jurors have been swayed by news coverage, Schwartzberg has filed a motion to move the trial to another city. He has said he hopes that won't be necessary.

McCabe says he does not expect any problems in trying the case again in a Pinellas court.

The trial begins at 8:30 a.m. today in the Clearwater courthouse, 315 Court St.

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