TAMPA — For a glimpse at Jay Pruner’s prowess in the courtroom, look to a moment near the end of a 1998 murder trial.
The defendant was Lawrence Singleton, found guilty of stabbing a woman in his Orient Park home. A jury would learn that 20 years earlier, he’d attacked a teenage hitchhiker in California, raping her before hacking off her forearms with an axe. In the penalty phase of Singleton’s trial, she became the state’s star witness.
Pruner, the prosecutor, guided her through a retelling of the ordeal. In the finale, he posed a standard inquiry: Did she see her attacker in the courtroom and could she point to him? From the witness stand, she raised the hooked end of a prosthetic arm and leveled it at Singleton.
The stunning gesture helped secure a death sentence. Pruner’s performance was simple, matter-of-fact, but effective. It was the same understated style he has exhibited through 35 years as a prosecutor.
Pruner has brought more than 200 jury trials to a verdict. His cases are some of the most tragic and notorious in local history. He’s known for his scholar-like legal knowledge, good humor and relentless work ethic.
Pruner retires this week. Although he is just one of more than 130 lawyers at the Hillsborough State Attorney’s Office, those who know him say his departure will leave a void — and a legacy.
Bald, bespectacled, with a salt-and-pepper mustache, Pruner looks more like an accountant or a salesman than a lawyer. One longtime friend likened him to the Monopoly man. In court, he’s known for a muted sense of expertise.
“He’s so unassuming,” said Paul Sisco, a Tampa defense attorney and former prosecutor. “He was famous for giving the impression he was just kind of winging it. But he was extremely well-prepared.”
Pruner, 63, was born in Topeka, Kan., and grew up in Omaha, Neb. He attended Tulane University School of Law before working as a staff attorney at the Louisiana Supreme Court. He came to Tampa, passed the Florida Bar, and began working as an assistant state attorney in Hillsborough County on Sept. 2, 1986.
Pruner has never sought the limelight (he declined a number of interview requests for this story) but he has figured prominently in the news over the years. Archives include more than 400 stories that mention his name. He worked for four different state attorneys, who took credit for the cases he won.
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A sample of the biggest:
- Eddie Lee Sexton, abusive patriarch of an itinerant Ohio family, who in 1994 ordered his mentally disabled son to kill Sexton’s son-in-law while the family camped in Hillsborough River State Park.
- Willie Crain, a Tampa crab fisherman and sex offender convicted in the 1998 killing of young Amanda Brown, a case that posed a unique challenge in that the victim’s body was never found.
- Dorice Donegan “Dee Dee” Moore, a Lakeland woman who in 2009 murdered lottery winner Abraham Shakespeare and buried his body behind a Plant City home.
- Dontae Morris, who in 2010 murdered two Tampa police officers.
- Julie Schenecker, a New Tampa mother who in 2011 killed her two teenage children.
You might also mark Pruner’s career by the words of those he worked with.
In the mid-1990s, he led a trial team that practiced before the late Judge Robert Anderson Mitcham. It was a kind of training ground for young lawyers who would become some of the area’s most prominent.
Circuit Judge Michelle Sisco scored an early career highlight when Pruner named her to assist in the Singleton case. It was a strategic decision. The misogynistic defendant would be irritated with the female prosecutor.
Like others, Sisco had learned by watching Pruner.
“Jurors just intuitively know he’s someone that can be trusted, because he comes across like them,” she said.
Rita Peters, an assistant statewide prosecutor who formerly led Hillsborough’s sex offense division, remembers watching Pruner dismantle a witness’s story during trial in the 2001 death of Tampa police officer Lois Marrero.
“I was a baby prosecutor then,” Peters said. “And seeing him made me genuinely appreciate the fact that you don’t have to be theatrical or emotional to be effective.”
“You never had to worry with Jay if he was holding back on anything, or if he wasn’t telling you the truth,” said Tampa defense lawyer Rick Terrana, who tried more than dozen cases against Pruner. “I could tell you a thousand stories about prosecutors who violate all those rules. He truly was an exception to the norm.”
Chuck Massucci, a longtime Tampa homicide detective now with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, recalled the legal education he got from Pruner. In one of Massucci’s early cases, the slaying of young insurance adjuster Katrina Froeschle, the detective learned the high bar the state must clear to seek the death penalty. (Froeschle’s killer, Jason Funk, received a life sentence).
They would often disagree on cases. But Massucci knew Pruner as someone who let the law be his guide.
“To me, that most defines Jay,” Massucci said. “I’m sure there are times he had political and other pressures. In my estimation, he’s adhered to what we’re supposed to adhere to.”
Scott Harmon, a fellow homicide prosecutor, recalls practical jokes. Once, when former State Attorney Mark Ober went on vacation, Pruner snapped photos of himself in the boss’s office, cigar in hand, feet planted on the desk.
His dry wit provided comic relief in an office perpetually immersed in the dreadful.
“The thing I needed as a younger prosecutor was patience,” Harmon said. “He taught me that. He was patient with everything. With the public, with judges, with the defense bar, with next of kin.”
When the family of Kevin McCall learned there had been an arrest in the 2009 shooting death of his son, Ryan, Pruner became a new and familiar face. Going into court, he took time to explain to them the process ahead, how the focus would be on the rights of the defendant, and he answered their questions throughout the trial.
“You got the answer you may have wanted, or maybe you didn’t want,” McCall said. “But you got the right answer every time.”
Why was Pruner a homicide prosecutor for so long?
“I think he’d tell you it was because his professional basketball career was limited,” said State Attorney Andrew Warren. “This is what he does. He’s fantastic at it. He’s motivated by all the right things and he’s probably too humble to say those things.”