TAMPA — Granville Ritchie raped and murdered 9-year-old Felecia Williams, a jury decided Wednesday afternoon.
After more than a week of testimony, the panel of seven women and five men spent four hours deliberating before finding Ritchie guilty of first-degree murder, sexual battery and aggravated child abuse in the 2014 death of the Tampa girl. Felecia’s body was found floating amid the rocks and mangroves off the Courtney Campbell Causeway.
Those same jurors will now have to decide whether Ritchie should die for his crimes. The sentencing phase will start when court resumes Thursday, and prosecutors will ask the same panel to impose the death penalty.
Ritchie, 40, sat at the end of a defense table and showed no reaction as the verdict was read. Moments later, his attorney, Bjorn Brunvand knelt beside him, draped an arm over his shoulders and spoke softly.
“We’re going to do the best we can to try to save his life,” Brunvand said afterward.
To do so, the defense must convince at least one juror that Ritchie should spend the rest of his life in prison.
The girl’s mother, Felecia Demerson, held hands with Temple Terrace Police Chief Kenneth Albano as the jury’s decision was read aloud. She declined to comment afterward.
Albano, whose agency investigated the 9-year-old’s murder, said he felt a responsibility to see the case through. But it’s not over yet.
“It’s an opportunity to exhale,” he said.
Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren, who has acknowledged the inequities of the death penalty, said the Ritchie case is one of the few that merits the harshest sentence allowed by Florida law.
Ritchie was a stranger to Felecia, but they both knew Eboni Wiley. She was a neighbor and friend to Felecia’s family and considered herself the girl’s godmother. Wiley had met Ritchie days before the murder and was instantly smitten.
On the day she vanished, Felecia left home with Wiley. They met Ritchie, who drove them to his mother’s apartment. While there, he asked Wiley to leave to go buy marijuana.
It was then, prosecutors said, that he sexually assaulted and strangled the girl.
In his closing argument earlier Wednesday, Hillsborough Assistant State Attorney Scott Harmon played a recording of a 911 call that came from Ritchie’s cell phone minutes after 5 p.m. on May 16, 2014.
When a call taker answered, there was only a low indecipherable noise.
“It’s only a couple seconds long, but could you hear it?” Harmon asked the jury. “Could you hear the fear? It’s the fear that comes from the heart and mind of a child."
The call is significant because it was made at about the time that Wiley’s grandfather and a friend testified that they were helping her purchase marijuana. The call must have been made by Felecia, the state theorized, at the time she would have been alone with Ritchie.
A Temple Terrace police officer was sent to the area of the Doral Oaks apartment complex to investigate, but did not have an exact address for the call. The officer left after seeing no signs of an emergency.
Prosecutors theorized that Ritchie concealed Felecia’s body in a suitcase and later that night drove to the Courtney Campbell Causeway, where he dumped her, nude, into the bay.
Skimming over more than a week of testimony, Harmon walked the jury through a conglomeration of circumstantial evidence, which he said paints a “mosaic of guilt.”
There was Wiley’s testimony that when she returned to the apartment, Ritchie said he’d given the girl money to buy candy at a nearby CVS store and she had not come back. Surveillance images captured Wiley entering the store alone at 5:40 p.m. to ask a clerk if a girl had been there. When Wiley returned to the apartment she told the jury she found Ritchie shirtless and sweating.
There were also Ritchie’s cell phone records, which put him the vicinity of the Causeway later that night.
There was the telltale mangrove leaf found lodged in the headlight of the silver Lexus that Ritchie drove, similar to vegetation in the area where the body was found. And there was the sand found on the passenger-side floorboard and in the lining of the car’s trunk, which an expert said was consistent with the sand near where Felecia was found.
In an interview with detectives, Ritchie repeated what Wiley described as a lie they cooked up to explain Felecia’s disappearance — that the girl had run off while he and Wiley were having sex in a bedroom.
During that interview, Ritchie mentioned something about Felecia committing a sex act, and spoke of what happens to people who molest children in his native island of Jamaica: “They throw them in."
Brunvand gave the defense’s closing and his last words to the jury highlighted several weaknesses in the state’s case. There is no DNA evidence linking Ritchie to the crime. No hairs or fibers. No signs of a struggle.
He suggested that it was reasonable for them to conclude that Wiley could have killed the girl instead of Ritchie. He noted that Wiley admitted she took an Ecstasy pill when she was at the apartment, and that when she had previously ingested the drug, she spoke of “Satan trapped in her mind.”
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Brunvand, however, acknowledged one the strongest pieces of the state’s evidence: data from Ritchie’s cell phone showing him in the area of the causeway hours after the girl was last seen. But that alone, the defense attorney noted, does not prove that Ritchie killed her.
The prosecutor highlighted the power that the girl’s killer must have had, the force he must have inflicted.
Harmon pointed to the testimony of a doctor, who said that it would have taken about two minutes of consistent pressure to her neck for Felecia to die. He invited the jurors to consider just half that time.
For 60 seconds, there was silence. Some jurors closed their eyes.
“Think about how deliberate that is,” Harmon said. “Every second of those minutes is a second that this defendant could have stopped, a second this defendant could have used mercy.”