1. News

Lindsey verdict: Guilty of first-degree murder

The judge called it "a dark period in the city's history." The defense attorney called it an "epic tragedy."

But on Friday, 13 months after the shooting of St. Petersburg police Officer David S. Crawford, a jury called it first-degree murder.

And Nicholas Lemmon Lindsey learned at the age of 17 that he will spend the rest of his life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Thane B. Covert sentenced the teenager to life for murdering Crawford, a crime that shocked a weary St. Petersburg just 28 days after two other officers were killed in the line of duty.

The jury rejected the defense's argument that the crime amounted to manslaughter — that it was a combination of an accident and a reaction by a "scared child."

Crawford's widow, Donna, wearing her husband's wedding ring on a chain around her neck, as she always does, stood up in court and told Lindsey she would like to forget him.

"You are not worth remembering anymore after I walk out of this courtroom today," she said, "except the day I get to read your obituary and then maybe, maybe I will find peace within this nightmare I relive every day."

Then the officer's daughter, Amanda Crawford, spoke.

"I understand that my father's sacrifice made him an eternal hero for the city of St. Petersburg," she said. "But my dad was my hero from the time I knew what a hero was, and I no longer have my superman."

Because he is a juvenile, Lindsey could not be sentenced to death. St. Petersburg police Chief Chuck Harmon said the verdict and life sentence brought the department closer to closure, but not all the way.

"It helps," Harmon said. "But it's not the end."

Lindsey, wearing a dark green dress shirt buttoned to his neck and a fresh haircut he got earlier in the week, showed no emotion as the verdict was read. He almost looked placid. He made no statements to the court.

Dozens of St. Petersburg officers lined the courtroom for the verdict. "We stand behind our people," said Maj. Mike Kovacsev.

Lindsey's mother and father, who urged him to tell police what he did after his arrest last year — then testified on his behalf this week — left the courthouse without comment.

Mother Deneen Sweat appeared as stoic as her son. Father Nicholas Lindsey Sr. walked outside sobbing, his hand covering his mouth, a friend holding him upright.

Lindsey broke into a car the night of Feb. 21, 2011. A neighbor called police to report a suspicious person. As Lindsey tried to get away, he was stopped by Crawford near the corner of Eighth Street and Second Avenue S.

Crawford parked his cruiser, got out and pulled a notebook from his shirt pocket. He waved the notebook at the teen, telling him to come over.

That's when Lindsey ­— just nine days after his 16th birthday — pulled out a .380-caliber pistol and started shooting.

Crawford, 46, who was not wearing his protective vest, collapsed after being shot five times, once in the back.

From the beginning of the trial, it was clear the prosecution had a strong case. The evidence against Lindsey: His tearful, video-recorded confession; DNA that connected him to the burglarized car; an eyewitness to the shooting; others who saw him running away from the scene; and one eyewitness who saw him running through downtown with a silver gun in his hand.

That led defense attorneys Dyril Flanagan and Frank McDermott to adopt an unusual strategy: admit that Lindsey shot Crawford. They argued that Lindsey's true crime was manslaughter, not murder, a gambit that could have resulted in a 30-year prison sentence instead of life for their teenage client.

Flanagan started his closing argument Friday morning by conceding that Lindsey's actions were wrong and that Crawford's death was "an epic tragedy."

But he denied that Lindsey was "the man" who planned to kill a cop. Flanagan called his client a "whimpering snot-nose boy" even a "momma's boy," who was scared of gang members from rival neighborhoods.

That fear, and not any evil intent, is why Lindsey armed himself with a gun, Flanagan said.

Flanagan explained the shooting this way: Crawford stopped Lindsey and told him to show his hands. Lindsey drew the handgun but thought the safety was on. It fired accidentally. As to the four remaining shots, Flanagan said the shooting was "panic and fear," not something he planned to do.

"This is a fearful boy shooting," Flanagan told the jury. "This is not intentional."

Flanagan stressed that there was nothing premeditated about the crime, because "there's nothing conscious about this … it's just a boy responding."

But even that explanation left the defense with a big problem. Jurors had been told that if Lindsey shot Crawford while committing or escaping from another felony crime — in this case, breaking into a car — that too would amount to first-degree murder. Flanagan argued the two were separate incidents.

"What does fit, ladies and gentlemen, is manslaughter," Flanagan said. "It fits. It's appropriate. And a verdict like this is not going to dishonor the legacy of Officer Crawford."

The only thing prosecutors agreed with the defense on was that Lindsey pulled the trigger. But he was no scared boy.

"This inexperienced, poor, little scared 16-year-old kid hit all five times," Chief Assistant State Attorney Bruce Bartlett told the jury. "Lindsey turns and points and fires. He fires and he fires and he fires. Nicholas Lindsey hit David Crawford five times.

"If that's not intending to kill, then I'm sorry, I don't know what is."

The prosecutor pointed to Lindsey's video-recorded confession, in which he admitted shooting Crawford. The teen had his finger on the trigger, and said, "I had to do it 'cause I didn't want to die. So I went to shooting him."

Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe, trying a case for the first time since 2007, said the defense was trying to claim Lindsey's handgun "just went off willy-nilly."

But he pointed to the testimony of Ashton Ware, who witnessed the shooting. Ware testified that Lindsey whipped around and aimed right at Crawford.

"He fires five shots," McCabe said, "and where does the last one go? Right in the back of a 25-year veteran police officer just doing his job."

The defense argued that Lindsey was a bullied teenager who grew up in the rough Bethel Heights neighborhood and was menaced by rival gangs.

That did not sit well with Donna Crawford, who said she also grew up in St. Petersburg.

"You claim to be this scared little boy who comes from the rough streets of south St. Pete and a community that failed you," she said. "But let me tell you, I come from the same streets of south St. Pete . . . but unlike you I didn't carry a gun, shoot and kill another human being nor blame anyone else for our choices."