DADE CITY — Tyree Jenkins is already a murderer.
He was convicted in the 2008 shooting death of a man who tried to stop Jenkins from robbing his brother outside a Tampa gyro shop. The man, who had never met Jenkins, identified him in a photo lineup. Jenkins, now 26, is now serving a life sentence.
Pasco prosecutors, who are trying to prove Jenkins murdered two Wesley Chapel teens execution-style in 2006 on a dirt road along with co-defendant Luc Pierre-Charles, want jurors to know about Jenkins' past. If convicted, Jenkins could get the death penalty.
Normally, rules bar the introduction of a defendant's prior criminal record unless someone first testifies to their good character.
However, an exception is allowed if prosecutors can show the crimes are similar enough and are using the information to prove a fact.
According to the law, such evidence is allowed if it is "relevant to prove a material fact in issue, including, but not limited to, proof of motive, opportunity, intent, preparation, plan, knowledge, identity, or absence of mistake or accident."
Jenkins' attorney is arguing that the cases are too different for the 2008 murder to be admitted. Circuit Judge Susan Gardner is set to decide the matter in a hearing set for Thursday, four days before Jenkins' death penalty trial begins Monday.
"The crimes have to be strikingly similar," said Christopher Walsh, a Jacksonville attorney who contributes to a blog on criminal defense issues.
For example, he said, they must have occurred at the same time of day, at the same location, used the same weapon, the same mode of operation.
Juries are not supposed to consider the information as a character issue.
"It's a loophole," Walsh said. "You have be careful what you say. It's not to be used to show bad character or a propensity (to commit the crime)."
"However, once the jury hears the evidence, it is hard to ask them to disregard it as evidence of the defendant's bad character," Walsh said.
A Polk County man convicted of murdering his girlfriend got a new trial last year after an appeals court ruled that jurors shouldn't have been allowed to hear details of a previous incident involving the strangulation of his ex-wife during an argument.
The circumstances weren't similar enough.
In the Pasco case, both killings happened after dark with guns as murder weapons. But the motive in the Tampa case was robbery, while in the Pasco case, it was less clear.
Witnesses in the trial of co-defendant Pierre-Charles testified that it was drug-related. One said that the pair wanted to kill someone to bolster their tough reputation on the streets.
And at least in Pierre-Charles' case, one of the slain teens was not a stranger. Derek Pieper, 17, knew Pierre-Charles, and had been giving rides to him and his fellow drug dealers. But he wanted to get out of that lifestyle and tried to distance himself from Pierre-Charles and his associates. One witness testified that Pierre-Charles, then 18, had threatened Pieper.
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The other victim, 18-year-old Raymond Veluz, was a stranger Pieper had just met at a party and who asked whether Pieper could help him get marijuana.
Pieper then called Pierre-Charles' brother, Andre. The pair ended up getting in a car with Pierre-Charles and Jenkins. Their bodies were later found facedown on Harris Hill Road in Trilby.
Prosecutors intend to use statements Jenkins allegedly made to friends that he was involved in the killings.
"No one will mess with me," Donovan Parker recalled Jenkins saying to him outside a bar called Grown Folks as he patted his gun, according to court records. "We left two guys laying flat head first, stinking on the street in Trilby. Don't make me do you like I did those two boys."
Jenkins, whom authorities questioned in the Hillsborough County Jail, said he wasn't at the scene.