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Justices acquit man sentenced to death

In a rare move, the Florida Supreme Court Thursday acquitted a Naples, Fla., man who was on death row for three years, saying there was not enough evidence to convict him.

James Robert Ballard, 38, convicted in May 2003 of crushing the skulls of his neighbors during a robbery, will likely be released soon because Attorney General Charlie Crist will not fight the decision.

Legal experts say the decision is highly unusual, occurring perhaps two other times in the past 30 years.

"It has happened before but it's quite uncommon," said Martin McClain, a death penalty lawyer who was once employed by the state to handle death row appeals. "It's basically saying that there wasn't enough evidence to go forward in this case and obviously the prosecution was wrong and the jury was wrong. This should not have led to a conviction."

Ballard will be the 26th person exonerated and released from Florida's death row since 1972.

He was convicted of crushing the skulls of his two neighbors, Jennifer Jones, 17, and Willie Ray Patin, 22, of Golden Gate in March 1999. Ballard was a friend and frequent visitor.

But the evidence against him was thin: a fingerprint on a water bed frame near Jones' body that matched Ballard's and a single hair found in her hand that matched Ballard's DNA.

Ballard and a half-dozen others were at the couple's house the night before they were killed. Jones was known to deal marijuana out of her apartment and was seen with $1,000 that night.

The drugs, the money and Jones' car were gone the next day. The car turned up about a mile away on a street where Ballard lived five years before.

But Ballard and his wife always said he was home at the time of the murders. The week before the slayings, a man affiliated with a street gang and two other men shot through the windows of Jones and Patin's apartment.

Defense lawyers said the fingerprint, one of dozens found in the apartment, could have gotten there before the murder. And the hair, one of dozens tested, could have transferred there in myriad ways.

"Every time you go into someone's home you are liable to leave fingerprints and hair fragments behind," said Assistant Public Defender Paul C. Helm, who handled Ballard's appeal.

The Supreme Court said the state did not prove Ballard guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

"Definitive evidence to show that the hair fell out during the attack on Jones is lacking," the court said. "It is just as likely that it fell out any time Ballard was casually in the room, or it could have been transferred to the room from any other part of the apartment which Ballard was known to frequent."

Ballard cannot be tried again for the murders.

Prosecutors were disappointed. "The jury thought he was guilty based on the evidence," said Chere Avery, a prosecution spokesperson.