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Clearwater man seeking death penalty disrupts hearing with outbursts

Craig Wall, who pleaded guilty in February 2015 to killing girlfriend Laura Taft and no contest to killing their son, had to be escorted, in shackles and handcuffs, to his sentencing hearing Thursday.
Craig Wall, who pleaded guilty in February 2015 to killing girlfriend Laura Taft and no contest to killing their son, had to be escorted, in shackles and handcuffs, to his sentencing hearing Thursday.
Published Apr. 15, 2016

Craig Wall's case has taken several twists and turns in the past six years.

He represents himself on the charges that he killed his girlfriend and their infant son. He has repeatedly said he wants the death penalty.

The latest twist happened Thursday: After he refused to leave his jail cell to attend a hearing, six Pinellas sheriff's deputies in tactical gear ushered Wall to Pinellas Circuit Judge Philip Federico's courtroom.

He shuffled through a door shackled and handcuffed, with a restraint strapped to his chest.

"I figured we make it interesting for once. What do you think about that, Phil?" Wall said, referring to Federico. "Do ya'll like seeing this on? Looks good, don't it?"

In February 2015, Wall pleaded guilty to killing his girlfriend, Laura Taft, 29, and pleaded no contest to murdering their infant son, who died after having suffered broken ribs and brain trauma.

Typically, during the penalty phase of a case, prosecutors present evidence in favor of the defendant's execution, called aggravating factors, and defense attorneys present evidence against the death penalty, like childhood trauma or mental health history, called mitigating factors.

In Wall's case, he is representing himself and wants to be sentenced to death. Federico assigned an independent counsel to present mitigating evidence on Wall's behalf since he declined to do that.

The two-day hearing was scheduled to begin at 8:30 a.m. Thursday, but was delayed more than an hour when Wall refused to leave his cell.

"If I was a Florida Bar member with a bar number," Wall shouted as he gestured his hands and slammed a stack of papers on a table, "you would not be treating me like this!"

In the past week, he filed an emergency motion to reschedule the hearing and withdraw his pleas, asserting that he did not get the chance to review new records filed in his case. Federico denied the motion.

"You've done your best to thwart our efforts to move forward with these hearings," the judge told him. "You want to cooperate and participate, the next minute you don't want to."

Wall cursed at Federico several times and disrupted the day's testimony, at one point bursting into laughter and clapping.

But Wall's tirade continued during the lunch break, when he slumped to the floor after being handcuffed. Four deputies carried him into a holding cell.

Shortly after 1 p.m., when Wall's outbursts continued, Federico could tolerate no more.

"You're done," the judge said. He appointed Wall's standby attorneys to represent him for the rest of the hearing.

"Later, dude," Wall said as seven bailiffs escorted him out of the courtroom, placing him in a nearby room where he could watch the proceedings from a TV.

Wall spent 14 years in prison for robbery with a deadly weapon and armed burglary. He met Taft after getting out of prison in 2008.

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Their baby, Craig Wall Jr., was born shortly after Christmas 2009.

Five weeks later while under Wall's care, the boy went into cardiac arrest and died at a local hospital.

When Wall was arrested a few days later on a charge of violating a domestic violence injunction, the arrest affidavit noted that he was a suspect in his baby's death, but that fact was never mentioned in court and he was released on $1,000 bail.

Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe later acknowledged the case was mishandled and reassigned one of his prosecutors.

Three days after getting out of jail, Wall crashed through a sliding-glass door of Taft's apartment and stabbed her to death.

After Wall was removed from the courtroom Thursday, testimony continued despite his muffled wails from the nearby room.

A few minutes later, after a visit from one of his attorneys, the screams stopped.

The hearing will resume today.

Contact Laura C. Morel at lmorel@tampabay.com.