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T-shirt jury tucks a jab in with verdict

After five hours of deliberations Wednesday, six jurors found a St. Petersburg woman guilty of a misdemeanor for wearing a Pinellas sheriff's T-shirt and displaying an old sheriff's ID card to deputies.

Minutes later, outside the courthouse, jurors said their verdict didn't speak the whole truth.

"In our collective opinion, this case should never have been prosecuted by the state of Florida," said jury foreman Jeffrey Coleman as other jurors stood behind him.

"We feel there is a problem with this case " he said. "If the sheriff doesn't want these T-shirts on the street, then they need to clamp down" on those who sell them.

But jurors thought instructions on the law read by the judge left little choice but to convict Kimberly Sult, 24. Coleman, a civil attorney from Clearwater, refused to elaborate.

Moments before, Pinellas County Judge Michael Andrews sentenced Sult to one of the most lenient penalties available: He imposed $300 in fines and court costs and withheld a formal finding of guilt.

He gave her no probation and ordered no jail time, though she faced a maximum of one year on the misdemeanor charge.

"I do believe in displaying that ID card she specifically intended that the deputies who saw it would think she worked for law enforcement," Andrews said in sentencing Sult.

Sult is a former civilian detention employee at the Sheriff's Office who was fired in late 1999 for failing to report to work 39 straight days. She insisted she didn't wear the T-shirt to fool people into thinking she was a deputy.

"Be careful of what you wear in public or you'll end up in court," she said. "Hopefully, people will learn from this. I don't think everybody understands you can't walk around wearing this stuff."

It was June 14 when two Pinellas sheriff's deputies noticed Sult walking into a St. Petersburg convenience store. She was wearing shorts, sandals and a black T-shirt emblazoned with 5-inch letters: SHERIFF.

The T-shirt also was marked with the sheriff's star emblem and is something, prosecutors said, that is part of the uniform worn by many deputies.

Inside the store, Deputy Jerry Davis asked her, "Do you work for us?"

Davis said Sult lied to him by saying she still worked at the jail, even though she didn't any longer. Then she opened her wallet, he said, and showed her old sheriff's ID card.

Sult testified that the officer asked her whether she had ever worked for the sheriff. She said she never indicated to deputies she was still employed by the office.

Her attorneys, John Trevena and Patrick Calcutt, said the T-shirt is widely sold to the public by a local uniform store and at local flea markets. And the ID didn't identify Sult as a sworn deputy, they said. Deputies have a separate ID and badge.

Deputies charged Sult with wearing items that might fool a "reasonable" person into thinking she worked for law enforcement, leading to one of the most widely publicized trials in recent Pinellas history.

Over the past three years, only the racketeering trial of the Rev. Henry Lyons attracted more publicity.

Prosecutors didn't handle the case like any other misdemeanor, Sult's lawyers said.

Prosecutor Lydia Wardell, a misdemeanor supervisor for Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe, tried it and aggressively sought a conviction.

"She knew it was part of a uniform," Wardell told jurors of the T-shirt. "Even a 5-year-old would know that suggests she's a member of law enforcement."

Trevena said he might appeal the case to test the constitutionality of the state law under which Sult was convicted.

He said the judge's jury instructions didn't clearly explain to jurors that, in order to convict, they needed to find that Sult intended to deceive deputies.

"The instructions erroneously said that all she need do was wear the shirt to be convicted," he said. "But she had to have criminal intent."

Coleman, the jury foreman, said the Sheriff's Office needs "to take a look at itself" and review its policy about uniforms and sheriff's T-shirts and their availability to the public.

After jurors first stepped into the jury room to begin deliberations, Coleman said, "We all looked at each other and said, "Why is this case being prosecuted?' "

"I think (Sult) exercised bad judgment," he said. "But I don't think it was criminal in nature, and we're very happy to hear she's not getting jail time."

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