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Judge rejects 'stand your ground' claim in death of USF football player

After a two-day hearing, a judge Wednesday rejected a "stand your ground" defense claim by 
Randolph Graham, accused in the 2015 stabbing death of former USF football player Elkino Watson outside an Ybor City City nightclub. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]
Published Aug. 30, 2017

TAMPA — The videos played in slow-motion, frame-by-frame, again and again, before the judge's bench.

They show a man, his arm raised, a pointed object jutting from his right hand, according to Assistant State Attorney Christopher Castillo.

It is Randolph Graham, the prosecutor said, repeatedly swinging forward, plunging a knife into the body of Elkino Watson.

"You don't see any apprehension on the defendant," Castillo said. "You don't see him struggling to get away."

Castillo's argument convinced Chief Judge Ronald Ficarrotta, who on Wednesday denied Graham's request for immunity from prosecution under Florida's "stand your ground" law.

Graham, 25, who is accused of second-degree murder in the death of Watson, a former University of South Florida football player, will now head to trial.

His case was among the first in Hillsborough County to proceed with a "stand your ground" defense since lawmakers changed the law in June.

Under "stand your ground," an individual has no duty to retreat and may use deadly force if he or she is in fear of death or great bodily harm while facing a violent confrontation. Before, it was up to the defense to prove that immunity applied. But the recent change in the law shifted the burden to the state to prove that it does not.

After two days of testimony in Graham's case, Ficarrotta ruled that the state had met its burden.

Watson, 23, was stabbed during a brawl the morning of Sept. 6, 2015, as he left the Orpheum nightclub in Ybor City with some former USF teammates. Watson had graduated the year before.

An incident hours earlier had touched off the fight. Watson's girlfriend, Diamond Hall, said a man hit her inside the club. At closing time, as hundreds filed outside onto Seventh Avenue, Hall spotted the man, Justin Stroud, who had been visiting the club with Graham and another man, Rashard Matthews.

Stroud testified that Hall confronted him. Then Watson asked which man had hit her. She pointed, but at no one in particular. The fight was on.

No one said they saw a knife that night. But Stroud and Matthews testified that several large men swarmed them and began beating them. They testified in support of Graham's stand your ground defense, in which he argued Watson and his friends "had a significant height and weight advantage" over them.

The USF player was 8 inches taller than Graham and weighed 150 pounds more.

But a different narrative came in testimony from some of Watson's teammates. Among them was Desmond Horne, who also suffered stab wounds in the fight.

Horne testified that he saw someone attacking Watson and jumped in to help him. Horne said he punched one man in the back of the head and ended up backed against a wall with someone locked around his waist.

The judge was shown surveillance and mobile phone video of the brawl. In one video, as Horne struggles with at least one other person, Watson steps forward to help. At that point, a man — Graham, according to the state — steps behind Watson.

Narrating over the slow-motion frames in court, prosecutor Castillo said the video shows Graham driving his right hand into Watson's back — in the same area where his stab wounds appeared.

"Would a reasonable person, who is trying to help their friend . . . go and stab a person in the back twice?" Castillo asked.

Assistant Public Defender Crystal Urquiza, who led Graham's defense, objected to Castillo's characterizations.

She disputed the assertion that Graham and his friends were the aggressors, or that their participation in the fight constituted criminal activity. She reiterated that Watson and his fellow football players were much bigger and delivered much more punishing blows than Graham's group.

"The actions in this case were not unreasonable in light of the circumstances and the situation," Urquiza said.

A jury will now decide if Graham is guilty of murder. His trial is scheduled for Nov. 13.

Contact Dan Sullivan at dsullivan@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3386. Follow @TimesDan.

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