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TEEN IS CLEARED IN TWO DEATHS

He was accusedin a robbery left the victim and the suspect dead.

Michael Balkaran placed his head in his hands after hearing the first not guilty verdict. By the fourth one, he had begun to weep out loud.

Late Friday, after a week of testimony and argument, a Hillsborough County jury acquitted the Tampa man of murder charges in the deaths of a robbery suspect and victim who shot and killed each other.

Hillsborough Circuit Judge Anthony Black ordered Balkaran, 18, immediately taken to the Falkenburg Road Jail to be processed and released.

"No cuffs. No shackles," the judge told courtroom deputies, adding that Balkaran was not to spend another night in jail. "Treat him like one of us."

The state held Balkaran legally responsible for the slayings of St. Petersburg teacher Sean Ellenberger, 39, and Titus Hill, 19, a gun-wielding robber who prosecutors said was Balkaran's accomplice on the night of Aug. 1, 2008.

Ellenberger and Hill killed each other in a midnight gunfight that erupted during a robbery outside a Seffner home. Balkaran was 17 at the time.

Under state law, a person involved in a felony in which someone is killed can be charged with murder.

Balkaran stood trial this week for first- and second-degree murder, robbery and attempted robbery. Jurors reached their not guilty verdicts on all counts after 90 minutes of deliberation.

Assistant State Attorney Jalal Harb had described Balkaran as the aggressor in the robbery. But defense attorney Lyann Goudie sprinkled doubt on that claim at the start of the week.

She told jurors that a surviving robbery victim, Bob Mess, was mistaken in identifying Balkaran. Goudie placed a third, uncharged man in the role of the unarmed robber role of which Balkaran stood accused.

Mess testified, and stood by his identification of Balkaran.

Prosecutors used his testimony to prove that Balkaran had tried to steal a new CD deck that Mess installed that night in Ellenberger's Jeep Cherokee.

But Balkaran's fingerprints weren't recovered from the deck. A forensic expert testified that individuals don't always leave prints after touching something.

Goudie tried to cast doubt this week on a videotaped statement Balkaran gave to sheriff's deputies. She said detectives failed to notify Balkaran's parents that they had him in custody and harshly questioned him for hours without a guardian or attorney present.

Goudie said the jury's verdict also sends a message to the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office that that was unacceptable.

Relatives of Ellenberger, who taught at a private school in St. Petersburg called the Broach School, declined to comment as they left court.

Ellis Rampersad, Balkaran's brother, hugged Goudie before they parted.

"We're just happy and pleased about everything," Rampersad said.

Yorlanda Green, the mother of Hill, the accused robber who died, didn't attend much of the week's proceedings but arrived Friday as the trial wrapped up.

"My heart goes out to everybody," Green said. "I just hope it's a lesson. It's closure for some but not for all of us."

Kevin Graham can be reached at kgraham@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3433.

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