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Trial strategy focuses on self-defense

(ran North, South editions)

Roy Ethridge Jr., 47, liked to walk around his neighborhood, but often got lost. When that happened, his mother said, he would approach his neighbors in Holiday Lake Estates and ask them to call her.

That's what Mary Ethridge thinks happened the night in August 2003 when her son walked up to Kathy Wekwert. But Ethridge never came home.

Assistant State Attorney Eric Rosario said Tuesday that Wekwert yelled curse words at Ethridge and kicked him repeatedly in the head in front of her boyfriend's home. Ethridge, who was mentally handicapped after a brain injury from a 1978 motorcycle crash, died a few days later of blunt head trauma.

Wekwert, now 41, was charged with aggravated battery and faces up to 15 years in prison if convicted.

But on the first day of her trial Tuesday, her defense team argued she was the victim because Ethridge had grabbed her arm with both hands and cursed at her. This was, they said, a "classic case of self-defense."

Accounts differ on what happened about 11:30 p.m. Aug. 27, 2003. Two days after the incident, Wekwert's boyfriend Thomas Fox told the St. Petersburg Times that he had tackled Ethridge to the ground, fearing he might be trying to hurt Wekwert.

Wekwert said the man had grabbed her ankle and she kicked at him until he loosened his grip.

However, only Wekwert was charged. Rosario said he couldn't comment on that decision. As to why Wekwert was charged with aggravated battery, Rosario said, "We cannot establish who threw the death blow. (But) we believe there is strong evidence to establish the aggravated battery."

On Tuesday, jurors didn't hear Fox's account. They heard testimony from four neighbors who said they saw only Wekwert kicking Ethridge, who already was on the ground.

"She was kicking and kicking and yelling and cursing," neighbor Ramona Estes said. "It looked like the person was either unconscious or dead."

Defense attorneys Curtis Crider and Brian Mulligan discounted the testimony, arguing Wekwert was smaller than Ethridge and wore an ankle brace because of her own disability. They tried to introduce a police report alleging that Ethridge previously kicked in another neighbor's gate, but were told by Circuit Judge Michael Andrews to provide case law on the admissibility of such evidence before the trial resumes today.