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Legal experts weigh in on soundness of Lindsey defense strategy

Published Mar. 22, 2012

LARGO — Nicholas Lindsey did it. He just didn't mean to do it.

That was the legal strategy defense attorneys unveiled this week in the trial of the teenager accused of killing St. Petersburg police Officer David S. Crawford.

It seems counterintuitive. Why start by conceding defeat? But legal experts said focusing on the issue of criminal intent could mean the difference between the 17-year-old spending the rest of his life in prison — or just a few decades of it.

"It ain't the only possible strategy," said University of Florida law professor Bob Dekle. "But it sounds like the only viable strategy."

Veteran defense attorney Keith Hammond agreed.

"It's probably the only strategy at this point," the New Port Richey lawyer said.

That's because a tearful Lindsey confessed in a video recording played for the jury on Wednesday. The jury also spent the day listening to witnesses describe the Feb. 21, 2011, shooting and linking Lindsey to the crime. One witness said he saw Lindsey running away holding a silver gun.

"Not guilty is no longer on the table," said Clearwater defense attorney Bjorn Brunvand.

So the defense team apparently chose to fight the only battle it could still win: Did Lindsey intend to kill the officer?

Prosecutors have argued that Lindsey acted with premeditation, that he intended to kill when he shot Crawford five times. Intent is the key element of first-degree murder.

If the state proves intent, the jury will have to convict Lindsey of first-degree murder. That carries an automatic sentence of life in prison without parole.

But if the teen's lawyers, Dyril Flanagan and Frank McDermott, can convince the jury that Lindsey didn't intend to kill, he could be convicted of a lesser charge: manslaughter of a law enforcement officer. Then Lindsey would face a sentence of 30 years.

To do so, jurors would have to find that Lindsey acted with "culpable negligence" and reckless disregard for human life, but did not mean to take a life.

"Then there's some light at the end of the tunnel," Dekle said. "There's some hope of getting out eventually."

McDermott explained the defense's theory to the jury when the trial began Tuesday, describing what they believe happened between Crawford and the teen that fatal night.

When Crawford first encountered Lindsey he ordered the teen to show his hands. Lindsey pulled out a .380 semiautomatic pistol from his sweatshirt pocket. He thought the safety was on, but it wasn't. The gun went off accidentally.

Crawford then went for his gun, the defense said, and a frightened Lindsey started firing.

"In Nicholas' mind, he didn't want to die," McDermott told the jury Tuesday. "Now that's not a justified killing. But … it's not a premeditated killing. It's something that happened in seconds.

"This scared child has a firearm and it accidentally goes off."

In his videotaped confession, Lindsey made statements that align with the defense's theory. "I thought it was on safety," he said. He also said it just "went off."

Prosecutor Jim Hellickson countered the defense's attempt to portray Lindsey as a frightened child by repeatedly saying that "man" killed the officer.

"Quite frequently, as a defense attorney, what you're doing is damage control," Dekle said, "and trying to mitigate the damage that the defendant has done to himself."

Hammond said the defense could still challenge the confession and argue that it was coerced. However, defense attempts to get the video thrown out before trial failed.

The one thing Dekle said he would not do is put Lindsey himself on the stand. A 17-year-old being cross-examined by veteran prosecutors? Not a good idea, he said.

Another bad idea: trying to sell the jury on some made-for-TV defense theory.

"You can use all kinds of defenses," Dekle said. "There's the mysterious disappearing twin brother defense. But none of them are going to hold any water with the jury."