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Judge excludes taped statement at murder trial

The man accused of masterminding a 1999 drug deal that led to murder was as surprised as anyone when the gun went off, a witness told investigators.

In fact, witness Heath Brittingham said the first reaction Faunce Levon Pearce had when another man fired at a teenager's head was a surprised "What the hell? What are you doing?"

But Pearce's jury won't know that when deliberations start in his murder trial.

The videotaped account Brittingham related to a detective two years ago, after teenagers Stephen Tuttle and Robert Crawford were shot along State Road 54, was ruled inadmissible at the trial Wednesday.

Without those statements, the defense declined to put up any witnesses or evidence.

"What the court has basically done is deny the defense critical evidence that the state had in its possession," appointed defense lawyer A.J. Ivie told the judge.

Jurors are expected to reach a verdict today.

Pearce, 39, could be sentenced to death if convicted of first-degree murder and attempted murder.

Prosecutors aren't contending Pearce shot anyone himself. His cohort, Lawrence Joey Smith, 24, was convicted in May of shooting both teens.

Crawford, 17, died on the spot, but Tuttle, now 17, survived a bullet to the head and has testified at both trials.

Still, prosecutors contend Pearce should face the same penalty as Smith, claiming Pearce's criminal actions set in motion the events that unfolded Sept. 13 and 14, 1999, and ended with the shootings.

During the two past days of testimony, witnesses described the events prosecutors say led to Crawford's death. Pearce, witnesses said, set up a $1,000 drug buy using Crawford and Tuttle as couriers. When the Land O'Lakes High School students lost the money in a scam, Pearce summoned Smith, Brittingham and another man, Teddy Butterfield, to bring guns and help retrieve the cash, according to the state's case.

After loading everyone into his car, Pearce stopped the car twice along a dark stretch of SR 54. Each time, one of the teens was ordered from the car, and Smith shot them.

Pearce's defense team, Ivie and Mark Ware, told jurors Pearce had no intention of killing anyone, and Smith acted on his own.

After hammering at Brittingham's eyewitness testimony during an hour of cross-examination Wednesday, Ivie could not get him to repeat statements made in a taped interview with a Pasco County detective immediately after the crime. Brittingham said he couldn't remember everything.

So Ivie went to the videotape.

On the tape, played for Circuit Judge Maynard Swanson outside the jury's presence, Brittingham told investigators Pearce was the one who ordered the teens into the car, but he also said Pearce apparently didn't intend for them to get shot.

When the gun went off, Pearce was surprised and argued with Smith, Brittingham said.

"Faunce looked at him. He was like "What the f---?"' Brittingham said in the interview. "He didn't know that was going to happen . . . Faunce said, "What the hell? What are you doing?"'

Prosecutor Phil Van Allen argued against allowing the tape over Brittingham's courtroom testimony, and Swanson agreed it could not be admitted under rules of evidence.

Prosecutors Van Allen and Manny Garcia rested the state's case Wednesday afternoon after a parade of experts who told jurors how the case was investigated and confirmed the bullet that killed Crawford was a gun owned by Pearce.

In the last step before the jury gets the case, both sides will have closing arguments scheduled for this morning.