Aaron J. Freed, a 22-year-old Ruskin man, was convicted Tuesday of second-degree murder for smashing a man's skull with a hammer during a chaotic alcohol-fueled brawl.
Aug. 29, 2002, was karaoke night at Cherry's restaurant on Big Bend Road in Riverview. Just after midnight, one of Freed's acquaintances passed a drunken remark about a woman's figure. That led to punches, and soon much of the restaurant's crowd had spilled into the parking lot for a free-for-all.
Witnesses said they heard fists land, bottles pop and skulls hitting pavement. In the words of one witness, Paul Urbanek, "It sounded almost like thunder, from everybody punching each other."
Larry Scott Dieter, a 27-year-old Plant City man with a young daughter, collapsed from a fatal blow to the head with a hammer.
Freed, a laborer who frequented karaoke bars in hopes of launching a musical career, admitted that he swung the hammer at Dieter's head.
But, testifying Tuesday, Freed claimed he did it to protect himself. He claimed Dieter had tried to slash him with a knife, and produced photos showing that he had been cut on the neck.
"I thought I was going to die," Freed said. He said he reached into a friend's Ford truck and pulled up the hammer, the first weapon he could find. He said he swung twice at Dieter. The second time, he said, he connected and watched a stunned Dieter wobble away.
Freed said he fled and did not turn himself in to police, because he was afraid he would be arrested. He said his wife was pregnant and he wanted to be around for the birth of his child.
"If the stories don't fit, you gotta acquit," defense attorney Donald Foster told jurors, citing differing eyewitness accounts of the brawl. "We have an incomplete quilt patchwork of facts that you have to turn into a verdict."
But prosecutors said the hammer strike was an unprovoked attack on an unarmed man. Assistant State Attorney Kim Seace acknowledged that Freed was cut on the night of the brawl, but said it was not Dieter who did it.
The prosecutor pointed to the testimony of the restaurant owner, Glen Crain, who saw Dieter holding up his hands before Freed in a peacemaking gesture and saying, "I don't want trouble."
The prosecutor said Freed swung the hammer as "payback" because his friends had suffered in the parking lot brawl.
The jury took just an hour and a half to return the verdict, which can bring Freed up to life in prison when Hillsborough Circuit Judge Ronald Ficarrotta sentences him on Aug. 11.
Dieter leaves behind a 3-year-old daughter and a 27-year-old widow, Paula.
"He was not a troublemaker," Paula Dieter said of her late husband. "He would never cause harm to someone." As she listened to Freed testify, she said, "I knew almost every word he said was a lie."
_ Christopher Goffard can be reached at 226-3337 or goffardsptimes.com