A jury member says the panel thought another man had more reason to commit the crime.
Carlos Winton Bailey said he didn't want to get his hopes up. So when his mother visited him in jail and asked about his plans once he was free again, he politely shifted the subject.
He was charged with first-degree murder. And Bailey knew prosecutors won convictions of almost every defendant they charged with the crime.
Bailey professed his innocence. But he figured he would die in a prison cell.
"But God's got other plans for me," the St. Petersburg resident said.
A jury deliberated for two hours before finding Bailey not guilty of first-degree murder on Friday. Bailey, 27, who has worked as a security guard, was accused of shooting to death Marlow Lamar Taylor on 22nd Avenue S in late 1997.
Bailey turned to his attorney, Richard Watts, and said softly, "Thank God."
Four hours later, he was released from the Pinellas County Jail, wearing the same jeans and plaid shirt he had been arrested in just more than three years ago. He hugged his mother, Cynthia Winton.
"Anytime I get ready to do something wrong, this will be my jolt," Bailey said. "This will get me back to reality. I went down the wrong path before. But all that's changed."
The acquittal of a first-degree murder defendant is the rarest commodity in the criminal courts and Bailey's is the first in Pinellas since the summer of 1997 and one of only a handful in the last decade.
Prosecutors said Bailey and his friend, James Higgs Jr., 21, killed Taylor in revenge because the pair suspected Taylor of killing Higgs' cousin.
Prosecutors said Higgs was a passenger in a pickup truck driven by Bailey on Nov. 1, 1997, when they saw Taylor driving along 22nd Avenue S. They chased Taylor, prosecutors said, Bailey firing shots as they went.
Taylor was killed by a shot to the neck.
Higgs and Bailey were tried together in early 1999, both charged with first-degree murder. But their trial ended with 11 jurors voting to convict them but one refusing. So a judge declared a mistrial.
Higgs accepted a plea deal from prosecutors. In exchange to a guilty plea to being an accessory after the fact, a judge sentenced him to 15 years.
Higgs offered testimony that Bailey shot and killed Taylor. He later tried to recant his testimony. But his former attorney, forced to testify this week, confirmed to jurors that Bailey confessed during a strategy meeting involving Bailey, Higgs and the two defendants' attorneys before their 1999 trial.
Douglas Daignault, a member of the jury that acquitted Bailey, said jurors thought Higgs had a greater motive to shoot and kill Taylor than Bailey. He said jurors also were bothered that no one clearly witnessed Bailey actually shooting the gun.
"We had a lot of doubts on the case," Daignault said. "And it just seemed that Higgs had the big motive to kill him, not Bailey."
Bailey testified that Higgs fired the fatal shots.
After three years behind bars, Bailey said he's ready for a new start and plans to look for a job.
He earned his high school equivalency certificate while jailed and read voraciously, favoring the books of John Grisham, a lawyer turned novelist.
One of his first goals is to hug his 9-year-old son, Anthony. It's the boy's birthday next week.
"This is his birthday present," Bailey said. "My freedom."