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Judge refuses to reduce sentence of Nicholas Lindsey in police officer's shooting death

Nicholas Lindsey has twice been sentenced to life in prison for gunning down St. Petersburg police Officer David Crawford in 2011.

His punishment has once again become the object of courtroom debate.

On Friday, Lindsey's attorneys made a pitch to have his sentence reduced to 40 years, arguing that new sentencing guidelines for juveniles force the hand of Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Thane Covert.

Covert denied the motion, disagreeing that the law requires him to make that reduction. He could, however, choose to shorten Lindsey's sentence at a hearing next week, though he declared in 2013 that Lindsey "will die in prison."

The defense offered a promising picture of Lindsey's potential rehabilitation, while the state slowly retraced the night of Crawford's death to underscore a continuing threat to society.

Crawford's daughter, Amanda, who was 24 when her father was killed, asked the judge to impose the maximum sentence allowable today: life in prison with a review after 25 years.

"I cry when I see a father and daughter dance at a wedding because I know he will never see me dance at mine," she said in the courtroom. "I feel the best way to pay the debt of a precious life taken is a killer's life served."

Lindsey, now 21, was 16 years old when he fired five bullets into Crawford, who had interrupted him breaking into a car. A jury convicted Lindsey of first-degree murder in 2012, and Covert sentenced him to life without parole, the only possible sentence at the time.

Then the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that mandatory life sentences for juvenile offenders violated Eighth Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment. Instead, it said a court must hold a hearing to consider mitigating factors before imposing that penalty.

In 2013, Lindsey got such a hearing. Covert, a former prosecutor, again sentenced him to life without possibility of parole.

The next year, the Legislature passed a law in response to the Supreme Court decision. The law called for a minimum sentence of 40 years for first-degree murder.

The motion filed by Lindsey's attorney, Stacey Schroeder, argued that because there's now an alternative to life without parole, and his jury did not get to consider it during sentencing, Covert had no choice but to reduce Lindsey's sentence to 40 years.

The judge disagreed.

Schroeder then made a case for reducing the sentence anyway, based on Lindsey's youth. Doing so, she said, "does not denigrate the position held by Officer Crawford. It does not denigrate his memory."

The shooting occurred just after 10:30 p.m. on Feb. 21, 2011, near Eighth Street and Third Avenue S. Crawford, 46, a 25-year police veteran known for his intimidating size and gunfighter's mustache, was found lying next to his cruiser.

Lindsey, caught after the largest manhunt in city history, confessed at the encouragement of his parents, who told him to do what was right.

"I just started shooting," Lindsey said, sobbing, in a recorded video later played for the jury. "Mom, Daddy, I'm sorry."

Authorities said Lindsey bought the semiautomatic gun on the street a week earlier for $140.

"He chose to kill Dave in the hopes of not being held responsible for what he was doing," George Lofton, president of the Suncoast Police Benevolent Association, told the Tampa Bay Times on Friday. "He calculated that. He had the means to carry that out on him. I don't think anything needs to be changed."

Crawford's killing came one month after St. Petersburg police Sgt. Tom Baitinger and Officer Jeffrey Yaslowitz were also fatally shot in the line of duty — the first police officers killed in the city in 31 years.

Crawford was a veteran of the midnight shift, a gruff but amiable fixture of the tight-knit, "Black Sheep" squad.

Contact Craig Pittman at craig@tampabay.com and Claire McNeill at cmcneill@tampabay.com.

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