William Fitzsimmons faced the gamble of a lifetime.
Take the plea bargain and a 15-year prison sentence for a 2001 bank robbery after an appeals court overturned his conviction? Or go to trial again, angling for freedom but risking another conviction and another life sentence?
It was decision time Tuesday. Circuit Judge Stanley Mills asked the defendant if he was pleased with his lawyer and the plea deal.
Fitzsimmons didn't answer. He sat silently.
"No," he said. "I want a trial."
Minutes later, he relented.
"I'm sick to my stomach," Fitzsimmons said.
"Are you physically sick to your stomach?" the judge asked. "Or are you just sick because of this whole matter and you just want to get it over with?"
"I just want to get on with it," Fitzsimmons said.
The 45-year-old New Port Richey man took the 15 years. He pleaded no contest to a reduced charge of second-degree robbery and was adjudicated guilty.
Five years ago authorities say Fitzsimmons burst into a Hudson bank with a white lab coat, gloves, a surgical mask and a gun, and made off with $2,634.
Three days later, undercover detectives said they spotted him "casing" another bank and captured Fitzsimmons after a chase in which he wrecked two vehicles and swim across a canal.
He was convicted in 2004 of robbing the first bank and sentenced to life in prison. But in June the 2nd District Court of Appeal overturned the conviction, saying the trial judge erred in letting prosecutors use Fitzsimmons' actions in casing the second bank, then fleeing, as evidence that he robbed the first bank.
"They made their case by trashing him for other acts," said his attorney, Keith Hammond.
So why was Fitzsimmons so ready to trash the lawyer who got his conviction overturned, who turned life in prison into 15 years?
"My attorney is not as abreast of the case as he should be," Fitzsimmons told the court Tuesday as he leaned toward a re-trial.
"Well, he did enough to get it overturned," the judge said.
Fitzsimmons is already serving 10 years for a 2002 plea deal on charges of grand theft and fleeing and eluding for that wild chase. He was willing to accept 10 years for the robbery, but because of his criminal record the state wouldn't go lower than 15.
With credit for time served, Hammond said his client could spend about nine more years in prison.
"As a pure business decision," the lawyer said, "you can't risk doing a life sentence over five years."
So it was over. Sort of. Fitzsimmons didn't hide his frustration. And outside court his sister, Joann Vaughn, asked the lawyer what her brother can do to fight the deal he just agreed to take.
"I think he's getting a raw deal," she said. "He's innocent."
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Jamal Thalji can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6236.