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Thai cafe owner reflects on verdict

Published Aug. 5, 2006|Updated Aug. 5, 2006

In the 24 hours after leaving the Hillsborough County Courthouse a free man, Lawrence Storer was still fascinated with his own manslaughter trial. He watched video of himself dropping his head after hearing the words "not guilty" on Court TV's Web site, pored over next-day newspaper columns, listened to comments on the radio.

He was well aware that some thought his freedom was unfair. He knew some people thought he should pay for hitting and killing Shantavious Wilson, 24, with his Ford Explorer shortly after Wilson robbed him at gunpoint at his downtown Tampa restaurant.

Then there were those who showed up at Sumos Thai Cafe, 301 E Twiggs St., when Storer opened for lunch Friday. Storer, 36, offered a free buffet of Thai food to the well-wishers who congratulated him and stuffed dollars in a fishbowl for a "John Fitzgibbons Bern's (Steakhouse) fund." That's where his defense attorney likes to have drinks, Storer said.

"It's John Fitzgibbons Day," Storer said. "I just want to do something nice for him, to give back."

Fitzgibbons, who was out of town Friday, was the one who drove home the definition of "excusable homicide" to jurors throughout the three-day trial. A provision in Florida law says homicide is excusable when it occurs by "accident or misfortune in the heat of passion, upon any sudden or sufficient provocation."

The two black jurors and four white jurors deliberated for nearly five hours before Storer was found not guilty of manslaughter.

The jurors were not given the option of voting on a lesser charge. Storer faced as much as 15 years in prison with a guilty verdict.

Many lunchers and passers-by seemed happy Friday to hear of the trial outcome. The familiar customers hugged Storer, and the new ones smiled and offered good wishes. One man called Storer a hero, and another asked for his autograph.

Around the corner, Ken Pope, 42, was walking to a different Thai restaurant and wondered whether the trial outcome sent the wrong message to would-be vigilantes.

"I agree that it would be a bad thing to send him to prison," said Pope, who is an assistant Hillsborough County attorney. "At the same time, I think, just as a practical matter, that he should have been convicted of something. I think it's important to keep the message that you can't do that."

There may be more chances to see how other juries handle similar situations. Two cases somewhat reminiscent of Storer's are working their way through the county court system.

James Behanna was charged with manslaughter after pursuing and killing James Mears, 21, who trespassed on Behanna's wife's law office parking lot Dec. 7. Police said Mears put his hands around Behanna's neck and threatened to beat him before Behanna stabbed Mears with a pocketknife.

On Jan. 8, tow truck driver Donald Montanez tried to impound a man's car when the man became combative, police said. Montanez shot the man with a .40-caliber pistol, killing him, and was charged with second-degree murder.

As Storer talked about getting back to his normal workout routine at the gym and going to see a movie at Channelside on Friday night, he seemed grateful for the Florida legal system and the jurors who let him go.

Two women eating at Sumos Thai Cafe, who had never met Storer, felt the same way.

"I think that if someone robs you or attempts to rob you, you should have the right to defend yourself," said Suzi Marteny, 34. "If you're a robber, and you stick your gun in someone's face, you're taking the chance that you don't know what that person is going to do."

Her friend Bridget Pennington added with a laugh: "Let that be a message to all you would-be robbers."

Emily Nipps can be reached at nipps@sptimes.com or (813) 269-5313.

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