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Inmate may travel to see witness

His attorney says a woman in Indiana can clear him of murder charges. Prosecutors say that if she is interviewed, he must be present.

A man charged with a 5-year-old murder _ and facing the death penalty if convicted _ may get to see an Indiana spring before he goes to trial.

As the oft-delayed case against former pizza deliveryman Michael Peter Fitzpatrick lumbered toward yet another trial date, his attorney told a judge Thursday he wants to take and preserve the sworn testimony of an Indiana woman he says will help clear Fitzpatrick.

But for the testimony to be presented to a jury, in the event the woman doesn't show up for the March 26 trial, prosecutor Phil Van Allen said the state will insist that Fitzpatrick is present during the questioning, as part of every defendant's right to confront all witnesses.

Circuit Judge Maynard Swanson said he won't interfere with Van Allen's demands, which means Fitzpatrick _ in jail since February 1997 _ and a cadre of attorneys, sheriff's deputies and a court reporter, may fly to South Bend, Ind., sometime in the next two weeks at county expense.

The trip is not guaranteed, but the sides appeared locked to their positions Thursday.

After the court session, appointed defense attorney Bill Eble said the defense must ensure witness Cindy L. Young is questioned and her testimony is available at trial.

Van Allen said he will insist every court rule is followed to the letter to limit appeal issues if Fitzpatrick is convicted and sentenced to die.

Fitzpatrick, 38, is accused of killing Laura Lynn Romines, 28. She was found wandering half-naked along Parkway Boulevard in Land O'Lakes about 3:45 a.m. on Aug. 18, 1996. Her throat had been slashed and she had been raped and sodomized. She died weeks later at a Tampa hospital.

Prosecutors in November revealed evidence of sexual torture.

Thursday's development is the latest bump on what has been a rough road to trial.

Fitzpatrick's case has been handled by three attorneys and has been subject to repeated hearings on everything from DNA evidence to witness identification.

It appeared the trial was on in November, but it stalled halfway through the second day of jury selection when Eble came back from a lunch break and said he had contacted a key witness _ a woman missing since 1996 _ who could clear his client. The catch was, she had moved to Indiana and was afraid that if she returned to Florida she would be arrested on a traffic warrant.

The judge on Thursday ordered her to come here for this month's scheduled trial, but Eble said he must take her testimony first and have it certified so it could be presented to a jury if she doesn't show up.

Fitzpatrick was at Thursday's hearing but did not address the court. He is being held in a county jail in Land O'Lakes without bail. He has said he is innocent.