Nicholas Demerie's attorneys asked the jury to consider that speed alone isn't evidence of reckless driving.
"We know he was going faster than the speed limit," defense attorney David Parry said Thursday afternoon during his closing argument. The problem was that the rear tires of his 1995 Chevy Camaro Z28 lost traction, sending him out of control and into an oncoming car, killing four people.
Perhaps a finicky traction control system is to blame, Parry added.
"This man did not drive in a reckless manner," he told the jury.
But in the end, the jury sided with the state's case.
Assistant State Attorney Mike Halkitis, in his closing arguments, called Demerie's behavior "classically reckless."
"I submit to you that this isn't a very difficult issue," he said.
Investigators say that about 8 p.m. on March 2, 2001, Demerie was drag racing against a Corvette at speeds approaching 90 mph in a 45 mph zone on State Road 54 when his Camaro crossed the median near Old State Road 54 and hit a Plymouth Caravelle driven by Miqucalena Zorbas. Her sons, Robert Zorbas, 14, and Anthony Zorbas, 10, as well as Deziree Pozzi, 4, died as a result of the fiery wreck. Demerie's wife, Ann Marie Demerie, also was killed.
Miqucalena Zorbas suffered 30 broken bones, a lacerated liver, a lacerated kidney and memory loss. Her niece, Tabitha Brooks, also suffered several broken bones.
On Thursday, the jury deliberated for roughly three hours before convicting Demerie, 56, of three counts of vehicular homicide for the deaths of the children, two counts of reckless driving with injury for Miqucalena Zorbas and Brooks, and a single count of reckless driving in the death of his wife.
Miqucalena Zorbas, 39, said that after the verdict she tried to hold in her emotions, but her cries were heard throughout the courtroom.
Later, Zorbas said she tried to push her emotions down but they had to come out. She thought of the ripple effect of the crash on all the families involved and said, "There are reasons why there are rules. And he needed to know there was a speed limit for a reason. A whole corner of the world got topsy-turvy because he put his foot on the gas pedal."
An investigator from the Florida Highway Patrol pegged Demerie's speed at 86 mph. The state also hired an independent forensic engineer who testified Demerie was going 88 mph when he lost control of his Camaro.
The defense tried to poke holes in their testimony, pointing to discrepancies in their calculations.
But Randy Klines, who witnessed the drag race, said he believed the cars were going 90 mph. Albert Grella, Demerie's brother-in-law, also testified that Demerie told him soon after the accident that he was going between 80 and 90 mph.
Grella had picked up Demerie at the hospital in the early morning hours of March 3, 2001. It was then Demerie said: "Oh my God, I killed my wife. I killed your sister," Grella testified.
When Parry asked Grella about his relationship with his sister and Demerie, Grella pointed his finger at Demerie and said, "What does that have to do with anything? He killed my sister. He killed three children."
Grella said after the verdict that his brother-in-law had been obsessed with speed since he was a teenager.
Demerie's attorney's argued that Demerie should remain free on bail until his sentencing in March.
In response, Halkitis said that Demerie, who is now facing 20 to 30 years in prison, needs to be in custody.
"He knows he's been convicted. He's no longer presumed innocent," he said.
Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Daniel Diskey agreed. As the bailiffs readied Demerie to be taken into custody, his daughters cried.