NEW PORT RICHEY — A judge’s decision on whether former Port Richey Mayor Dale Massad was standing his ground when he fired two shots as a SWAT team breached his front door last year will not happen in a pre-trial hearing typical of stand your ground cases.
Instead, Massad’s trial for five counts of first-degree attempted murder, set to begin Feb. 24, will continue as scheduled. Toward the end of the trial — after arguments and before the jury comes to a verdict — Judge Mary Handsel will determine whether Massad should be immune from prosecution.
The judge and attorneys on both sides came to that agreement during a pre-trial hearing Friday, four days after Massad’s attorneys filed a stand your ground motion. They argue that Massad was asleep when the SWAT team, serving a search warrant, woke him at 4:30 a.m. on Feb. 21, 2019, and that Massad shot toward the front entrance because he thought they were criminals breaking into his house.
In most stand your ground cases, a specific hearing is set for attorneys to present their cases to a judge. After a 2017 change in the law, prosecutors now have the burden of proving that stand your ground does not apply.
But in this case, both prosecutors and defense attorneys wanted the trial to go on as scheduled, they told Handsel. They considered setting a stand your ground hearing on Feb. 21, but prosecutors said they’d have to subpoena 20 witnesses already subpoenaed for the following week’s trial, and Handsel said media coverage of a stand your ground hearing could make jury selection difficult the following week.
They agreed to treat the stand your ground motion as a motion for a judgment of acquittal, where the defense, claiming that the prosecution doesn’t have sufficient evidence to convict, asks a judge to acquit before a jury’s decision.
During Friday’s hearing, Handsel also denied a motion by the defense to have jurors walk through the crime scene, though she said she could allow it at the end of the trial if the jury needs more information to understand the defense’s argument. A final pre-trial hearing was set for Feb. 21.