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TEEN MIGHT HAVE TO PAY FOR TWO DEATHS

Even if unarmed, he faces murder charges.

No one saw Michael Balkaran brandish a gun during a robbery last year that ended with a victim and a suspect fatally shooting each other.

But prosecutors say he's legally responsible for their deaths.

Balkaran, 18, of Tampa, is on trial this week for the murders of St. Petersburg teacher Sean Ellenberger, 39, and Titus Hill, 19, a gun-wielding robber who prosecutors say was Balkaran's accomplice on the night of Aug. 1, 2008.

Ellenberger and Hill killed each other in a midnight gunfight that erupted during an attempted robbery outside a Seffner home.

Assistant State Attorney Jalal Harb told a Hillsborough County jury during opening statements Tuesday that Balkaran, who was 17 at the time, is "on the hook" for what happened. Under state law, anyone involved in a felony in which someone is killed can be charged with murder.

"He has to answer to society," Harb said.

Balkaran is charged with first- and second-degree murder, robbery and attempted robbery.

Bob Mess of Seffner was Ellenberger's friend and a victim in the attack. He told detectives that Balkaran initiated the robbery, Harb said.

Mess and Ellenberger, who taught at the Broach School in St. Petersburg, spent the afternoon installing a new car stereo in Ellenberger's Jeep Cherokee. The pair had just returned from dinner when Balkaran approached him, Mess said.

"The younger, shorter of the two was in his face," Harb said, pointing to Balkaran. The teen demanded that Mess remove the stereo, yelling, "Get it out."

Defense attorney Lyann Goudie said Mess mistakenly identified Balkaran as his aggressor. She blamed the actions attributed to Balkaran on a third man who was never charged.

Goudie said that Mess' description of the unarmed robber could match 90 percent of young black men. She said she expects Mess to testify that perhaps he believed it was Balkaran because he was the only one arrested for the incident.

Jurors are expected to view a taped interview between Balkaran and investigators in which a detective gets heated and tells Balkaran he has one more chance to confess.

"I'm sorry I made you mad," Balkaran told the detective, then said, "Okay. I was the unarmed robber."

Goudie told jurors to pay close attention to the demeanor of the detectives, and compare their statements to those from Balkaran.

"I believe at the close of this case, it's going to be very suspect to you," Goudie told jurors.

Prosecutors wanted to link Balkaran to the murder weapon by telling jurors that investigators found a shell casing on Balkaran's night stand that had been fired from it.

The defense argued against that evidence, saying it had nothing to do with the deaths. Hillsborough Circuit Judge Anthony Black agreed.

He said there's no way to know when the shell casing was left there or who left it. He granted a defense motion to keep it out.

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