TAMPA — It took five years, a week-long trial and four hours of deliberations for Keith Gaillard to be found not guilty in the 2015 shooting death of India Clarke.
The case, which has whirled through Tampa’s court system for half a decade, came to a stunning conclusion late Friday with Gaillard’s acquittal on a charge of first-degree murder.
Gaillard embraced his attorney after the verdict. He was 18 when he was arrested and spent his first years of adulthood awaiting a trial that could have sent him to prison for life.
Despite the acquittal, he immediately went back into handcuffs and returned to the Hillsborough County jail. He faces a second murder trial, set to begin Monday, in a separate case.
Why not guilty? Lawyers for neither side would comment. But their respective closing arguments, delivered Friday morning, painted a portrait of a case that was less than airtight, with room enough for significant doubt.
A maintenance worker found Clarke, 25, the morning of July 21, 2015, in University Area Community Park, off N 22nd Street. She wore a black dress and lay face-down amid grass and mulch, her arms shielding her head. Bullet wounds marked her upper arm and the back of her skull.
Clarke’s rented Chevrolet Malibu was parked nearby. Investigators noted a number of items inside the car — a sheared and torn Styrofoam cup in a cup holder, a cup lid and straw and a broken metal key on the driver-side floorboard.
Assistant State Attorney Ronald Gale said the items were evidence of a struggle. Clarke was chased, he said, then shot where she was found. He described the killing as “execution-style.”
Clarke had been at the Interstate Lounge on N Nebraska Avenue, near Busch Boulevard, early that morning. Surveillance video showed her leaving the bar alone about 2:30 a.m.
A McDonald’s receipt found in her car showed a cash purchase the same morning of a sweet iced tea. A detective scrutinized video from the McDonald’s drive-through window, noting a particular cash transaction for one large drink.
But it could not be said for certain whether Clarke was the person who made that purchase or if anyone was with her.
Investigators identified Gaillard’s fingerprints on the receipt and a cigar wrapper in the car.
They also found a used condom in the back seat. Laboratory tests showed Clarke’s DNA on one side and Gaillard’s DNA on the other. Additional tests identified Gaillard’s DNA under the some of Clarke’s fingernails.
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But that, a defense attorney asserted, does not prove Gaillard murdered her.
Clarke had worked as a prostitute, and lived what attorneys described as a violent and dangerous life. She was known to post advertisements on websites and social media offering to meet for sex. She was known to have had violent encounters with men.
But investigators focused solely on Gaillard, a defense attorney said, ignoring other evidence and failing to pursue other possible suspects.
“They had a duty to thoroughly investigate this case,” Assistant Public Defender Dana Herce-Fulgueira said.
Investigators found other fingerprints inside the car, which belonged to a number of other people. They found another used condom on the ground near the murder scene, but DNA from it did not match Clarke or Gaillard or a third person who was known to exercise in the park. The state dismissed the item as unrelated to the murder, but the defense noted that no other DNA comparisons were ever made.
Likewise, a set of footprints in mulch near the murder scene were never scrutinized, Herce-Fulgueira said.
“Law enforcement has all this evidence that they take time to collect and photograph, and they do nothing with it,” she said.
The bullet that killed Clarke came from a .22 caliber firearm, the prosecutor said. Investigators spoke with some of Gaillard’s friends, who said he was known to carry such a weapon.
The jury was shown a photo taken from Gaillard’s Facebook page. In it, he appears shirtless, standing beside a house and a fence. He poses, gripping what appears to be a .22 caliber revolver.
One friend said he’d purchased the gun from Gaillard. Investigators seized the weapon and tested it.
But a firearms expert could not say whether the bullet that killed Clarke had been fired from that gun.
In fact, investigators had no evidence linking Gaillard to that weapon, the defense attorney said. And they had no evidence that it was the gun that killed Clarke.
One of Gaillard’s friends claimed he’d heard him utter something about “making an example of somebody,” and that he’d seen him with scratches on his neck. A photo taken shortly after Gaillard’s arrest shows a small mark on his neck.
But the defense attorney told the jury there was reason to doubt the witness’s credibility. He was a three-time felon, she said, who was on probation and admitted to lying during the investigation.
“If you are left with a lot of questions after today and not a lot of answers, I would suggest to you that that’s reasonable doubt,” Herce-Fulgueira told the jury.
A group of Clarke’s family members watched from the back of a cavernous courtroom as the jury delivered its verdict. Some appeared to weep as they left the courthouse. They declined to speak.
Attorneys will assemble a new jury Monday to hear evidence of the murder of Tyrone Sean Davis, 46, who was found shot July 26, 2015, in Temple Crest Park. Gaillard is the defendant in that case.