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Tampa jury deadlock leads to mistrial in ice cream man murder case

The judge set a redo trial date for May 11 for Michael Keetley, accused of killing two men and injuring four others in Ruskin in 2010.
Jurors on Friday said they could not reach a unanimous verdict in the case against Michael Keetley, an ice cream man accused of murder. Keetley, right, smirked as the judge instructed the jury to try again to reach a verdict. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]

TAMPA — The jury tasked with deciding the fate of Michael Keetley, the ice cream man accused of a double murder, could not reach a verdict Friday.

“Upon further deliberation and discussion, the jury has not reached a unanimous verdict,” jurors wrote in a note to the judge. “The jury is hung. This is not going to change.”

The deadlock forced Hillsborough Circuit Judge Christopher C. Sabella to declare a mistrial. He set a new trial date for May 11.

Keetley, 49, is charged with two counts of first-degree murder and four counts of attempted murder in a 2010 shooting at a home in Ruskin. Prosecutors say Keetley was looking to avenge a robbery and targeted the wrong people.

Keetley’s defense attorney, Lyann Goudie, said the mistrial wasn’t quite a win, but close.

“The win is getting a not guilty," she said. "This is the next best thing.”

Jurors deliberated for about seven hours over two days before announcing their decision.

They telegraphed their struggle toward unanimity starting Thursday when, after five hours of deliberating, they asked to go home.

“Several of the jurors wish to reflect upon the case," jurors wrote in a note to Sabella. The judge let them go at about 4:30 p.m., telling them to reconvene Friday morning at 9 a.m.

But after an hour of considering the case Friday, the group of nine women and three men still weren’t any closer to reaching a decision.

They informed Sabella at about 10 a.m. that they were hung.

“The jury has reached a point in the deliberations where after much and thorough discussion and many votes, it is certain we cannot reach a unanimous verdict,” jurors wrote in a note to the judge. “What would you like us to do at this point?”

Sabella brought the jurors into the courtroom to read them an instruction known as an Allen charge, encouraging them to try again.

Related: Tampa jury ponders murder case after ice cream man waives closing argument

They returned about an hour later with the news that a decision would not come.

If jurors had found Keetley guilty of first-degree murder, he would have faced an automatic sentence of life in prison. Prosecutors had sought the death penalty for years, but dropped their bid to have Keetley executed last year.

The case is Hillsborough County’s longest running murder case, spanning nearly a decade since Keetley was arrested and accused of shooting six men on a Ruskin porch early on Thanksgiving morning in 2010. The trial, from jury selection to deliberations, took three weeks.

Related: Eight years later, state drops death penalty in Ruskin double-murder case

After the jurors were released, Sabella addressed the lawyers, saying a mistrial can be an opportunity to consider striking a plea deal.

“Food for thought,” he said.

Goudie, Keetley’s attorney, said afterward she thought it was unlikely he would accept a guilty plea.

“It is very, very hard when somebody has been screaming that they’re not guilty for such a long time to turn around and then admit guilt," she said. “So I think it’s highly unlikely that anything is going to be resolved pretrial."

Prosecutor Jay Pruner declined to comment, citing the pending nature of the case.

Once an ice cream man who drove his purple truck through southern Hillsborough County neighborhoods, Keetley is accused of taking on a vigilante role, exacting revenge for an attack he suffered months before.

In January 2010, someone robbed Keetley of $12 in his ice cream truck and shot him four times. Months went by without an arrest. Meanwhile, Keetley languished, Pruner told jurors during his closing argument Thursday. He required surgery and therapy. He moved back into his parents’ home and slept in a hospital bed in the dining room, Pruner said.

Pruner said Keetley took matters into his own hands, conducting his own investigation to identify and find his attacker. Keetley zeroed in on a man called “Creep" or “Creeper,” who he believed attacked him, investigators said. Keetley sought out Creep that Thanksgiving morning and, in what prosecutors said was a case of mistaken identity, approached a group of men hanging out on a front porch on Ocean Mist Court in Ruskin.

He asked for Creep. He then told them all to get down. As the victims dropped to their knees, the shooting began.

Brothers Juan and Sergio Guitron were killed. Four others were injured.

Keetley was arrested a few days later.

The trial contained gripping testimony from survivors. They described similar stories of a black van pulling up to the house and a man with a shirt marked “sheriff" asking for their identification and forcing them to their knees before shooting them.

Related: Survivors testify in Tampa’s ice cream man murder trial

Gonzalo Guevara, who was shot in the hand, chest, torso and lower back, said he got a good look at the gunman. He testified that he was “2,000 percent” sure it was Keetley.

Keetley has maintained his innocence.

"I’m just telling you, it wasn’t me and it wasn’t the van,” he said in a recorded interview with detectives. “It just wasn’t.”

After the mistrial, Goudie described what she felt were strengths in the defense case: witnesses were unreliable, she said, and medical evidence showed Keetley had no use of his right hand.

She didn’t regret Thursday’s decision to forgo a closing argument for the defense. The prosecutor, Pruner, took just 11 minutes, and he spent several of them talking about the verdict form. He promised jurors he’d present more arguments about the evidence during his rebuttal. But since Keetley waived his right to a closing argument, Pruner never got the chance to say more.

“I stand by the decision," Goudie said. "I think it was the right decision to do in this case.”

Goudie said she was unsure if she would represent Keetley in his retrial.

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