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Vigilante or victim? A jury finally will hear both sides

Before noon, Lawrence Storer is working the busy lunch crowd at his downtown Tampa restaurant, handing out menus, greeting regulars, moving fast in his shorts and sneakers and bookish glasses.

To watch him, you'd never know he had just been given a gift of sorts - one that might even help him keep his freedom.

Storer was working at Sumos Thai Cafe late one night in 2003 when a man named Shantavious Wilson came out of the shadows, pointed a gun at him and demanded his money. Storer gave it to him.

When Wilson left the restaurant, Storer called the police. Then he got into his Ford Explorer and chased Wilson down. He hit Wilson and killed him.

He was charged with manslaughter. He faces up to 15 years in prison if convicted, though his attorney could argue for significantly less given his lack of a criminal record.

More than two years later, on the sunny sidewalk outside his restaurant, Storer stands apart from his customers for a moment to talk. He tells me he still dreams about that night.

Sometimes it's the robbery. Sometimes his family is threatened. He dreams about Wilson dying. He also dreams of prison.

"I think about it all the time," he says. "It's always hanging over you."

In the news, Storer has been described as a hard-working businessman, a father and husband. Wilson was a convicted felon fresh from prison. The case had an air of street justice or vigilantism, depending on your perspective. Would a jury end up sympathizing with the accused?

Last week, an appeals court gave them a reason to, or at least a good-sized boost to Storer's defense.

Defense lawyer John Fitzgibbons wanted the jury to hear about a similar robbery Wilson committed at a MacDill Avenue laundry back in 1998. The victim, a woman, was also working alone late at night and, like Storer, was Asian.

In an unusual ruling, the judge agreed to allow her testimony. (He also said the jury would not hear other details, like Wilson's previous lewd and lascivious charge, later reduced, or the fact that he had a stolen debit card in his pocket the night he died.)

Prosecutors appealed, and Storer's trial screeched to a halt. A year later, the appeals court sided with the judge.

The woman's testimony could do more than just make Wilson look less than ever like a victim. It could help the jury get inside Storer's head.

The defense is expected to argue that what happened to Wilson was "excusable homicide," which the law says is a killing "by accident and misfortune in the heat of passion, upon sudden and sufficient provocation." You were provoked, the situation was intense, you reacted.

Only Storer can say what he was thinking, how threatened he felt, why he did what he did. Now another person, a previous robbery victim, will tell the jury how afraid she was, how she felt looking at Wilson's gun. Storer told me he thought her testimony could help the jury see that Wilson was a "monster."

If I sat on that jury, I would not like the fact that Storer went after Wilson. I would want to hear what Storer was thinking from the time he first saw the man with the gun to the time that Wilson died. And I would listen very, very carefully to that critical moment when Storer decided to go after him.

The decision to allow the woman's testimony is a blow to the prosecution. But it doesn't necessarily mean Lawrence Storer walks.

Some people will still say he crossed the line. Others, once they hear Wilson's history, may be more inclined to give Storer a pat on the back on his way out the courtroom doors.

While he waits, Storer is busy with the downtown business crowd waiting outside for tables. In fact, he's about to expand his restaurant, planning to more than double its size. He's living his life, even with what happened always on his mind.

"It's a relief," he says, "that it's coming to an end."

Sue Carlton can be reached