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Man guilty in murder near Disney World

A Sanford man faces a possible death sentence after being convicted for the second time Thursday of kidnapping, robbing and strangling an Orlando woman and stashing her nude body behind a palmetto thicket near Disney World.

John S. Huggins, 40, was convicted of first-degree murder, carjacking, kidnapping and petty theft. The trial was his second in the June 1997 killing of 30-year-old Carla Larson.

Huggins was found guilty and sentenced to death in a Jacksonville trial in 1999, but the Florida Supreme Court overturned the verdict last summer because prosecutors withheld key evidence from the defense. The retrial was moved to Tampa after unsuccessful efforts to seat a jury in Osceola County.

"I'm happy with the verdict," said Larson's husband, Jim Larson. "We got what we wanted."

It was the state's first death penalty trial since the Florida Supreme Court issued stays for two executions earlier this month because of questions about the state's capital punishment law.

Florida's law says the jury is to recommend whether a person convicted of first-degree murder should receive a death sentence or life in prison, while leaving the final decision to the judge. But in an Arizona case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled recently that the defendant has the right to have that decision made by the jury.

With the question over Florida's law still hanging, Circuit Judge Belvin Perry of Orlando last week instructed jurors that they, not he, would have the final say on whether Huggins, if convicted, got life in prison or death.

Orange-Osceola Public Defender Bob Wesley indicated that deviation from the sentencing statute could be the basis for an appeal.

The jury returns today for the sentencing portion of the trial.

Huggins kidnapped Larson _ a mother and engineer who was working on construction of a Disney World hotel _ from a supermarket parking lot June 10, 1997. Her body was found two days later behind a palmetto thicket off Osceola Parkway.

Huggins was spotted driving Larson's white Ford Explorer, and Larson's jewelry was later found stashed in an electrical switch box at the home of Huggins' mother-in-law.

Huggins told Perry on Thursday he wanted to fire his attorneys and represent himself during the sentencing phase.

Huggins thus will be able to question members of the Larson family, scheduled to testify for the prosecution.