Decisions came in and out of courts

Published Dec. 31, 2002|Updated Sept. 4, 2005

(ran PC edition)

Usually, the notable moments from the year in Pasco County's justice system spring from the courtroom. This year, the most notable sprang from the ballot box.

Three Pasco judgeships in the Pasco-Pinellas Circuit Court system came down to contested elections, with two seats left open by retirement and one sitting judge facing a rare challenge.

Some things will change, and one will stay the same.

Veteran Judge Wayne Cobb held onto the Dade City seat he has kept since 1977 by easily defeating Pinellas County assistant public defender Chris Yeazell in September's election.

But the system was guaranteed two changes when sitting judges Maynard Swanson and Joseph Donahey Jr. announced their retirements.

Prosecutor Linda Babb survived a three-way race, winning Swanson's Dade City seat in a November runoff against Pinellas attorney George H. Brown. And 33-year-old civil attorney John Renke III defeated west Pasco criminal defense lawyer Declan Mansfield for Donahey's New Port Richey seat to become the youngest circuit judge in Florida.

In east Pasco, it wasn't just the action inside the courthouse, but the courthouse itself making news. Crews wrapped up a two-year, $8-million renovation of the Pasco County Courthouse as the year came to a close. The last piece will be returning the law library to the building in the next few weeks after more than a year at a temporary location.

County facilities chief Dennis Lemons said he was pleased with the results, which transformed a threadbare and dated structure to a bright, modern facility with better security, an additional courtroom and more office space.

There was plenty of action inside Pasco courtrooms, too.

In east Pasco, Swanson in February sentenced killer Faunce Levon Pearce to die for the 1999 roadside murder in Land O'Lakes of 17-year-old Robert Crawford III.

And jurors in March convicted 35-year-old Scottie Lee "D'Angelo" White of second-degree murder for the 2001 shooting death of Ronnie Barber, 23, at a Lacoochee nightclub. White was sentenced to life in prison.

Pasco-Pinellas prosecutors also decided not to take one high-profile case to court. The March discovery of thousands of dying chickens at an egg farm in Trilby sparked an extensive investigation, but in the end, State Attorney Bernie McCabe found there was no evidence of criminal wrongdoing, just a case of bankruptcy and a chain of unfortunate events as the egg farm went broke.

In west Pasco, prosecutors dropped a murder charge against David Long, who had been indicted for the 1998 death of his 7-month-old daughter based on a flawed autopsy report. The original autopsy, approved by former Medical Examiner Joan Wood, concluded that the child was shaken to death. A review of that autopsy in April by the new medical examiner found that the child died of pneumonia.

Michael Porter served 14 years in prison for the 1987 rape of a nurse in a Holiday motel, and he seemed destined to spend the rest of his life behind bars. But in February an appeals court granted him a new trial because of newly discovered evidence. In November, a jury acquitted Porter, and he walked out of the courthouse a free man.

But perhaps the biggest Pasco court story of the year centered on a legal dispute between a Port Richey civic association and a foster family. In October, the Forest Lake Estates Civic Association sued Steven and Corinna Gourlay, alleging that the couple violated the neighborhood's deed restrictions by taking in five foster children. The association's attorney equated raising foster children with operating a business. The Gourlays struck back two weeks later, filing a countersuit in federal court that accuses the association of violating fair housing laws. Both cases are pending.

Far from Pasco, but with a local tie, serial killer Aileen Wuornos in October was executed by lethal injection at the state prison in Starke. One of the nation's rare female serial killers, Wuornos, 46, had been sentenced to death for murdering six men along Florida roads in 1989 and 1990 and admitted killing a seventh.

Among her victims was Charles Carskaddon, a 40-year-old part-time rodeo worker whose body was found in Pasco County in 1990.

Wuornos' rampage spawned books, movies, a comic book and an opera.

The year ahead promises to focus attention back inside the courtrooms. In east Pasco, two high-profile convicts, Maria Krilly Lindsay, 70, and Shanna Jane West, 23, are both scheduled for sentencing in January. Lindsay drove drunk, the wrong way, on U.S. 301 south of Dade City, killing Gerald DeLong, 76. And West drove high on the drug GHB, killing 54-year-old Dade City resident Barbara Mercer.

The oft-delayed trial of Kristina Gaime, the 38-year-old Land O'Lakes mother accused of murdering a son in 1999, tops the list of trials expected sometime in the coming year.

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