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Jury asks question in Michael Drejka case as deliberations continue

The weeklong trial went to the jury Friday afternoon. That night, the judge couldn’t offer any clarity on their question.
Defendant Michael Drejka, front, enters the courtroom with his attorney William Flores, center, on Friday in Pinellas County. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
Published Aug. 23
Updated Aug. 24

LARGO — Jury deliberations stretched late into Friday evening in the trial of Michael Drejka, accused of manslaughter in the shooting death of Markeis McGlockton in a convenience store parking lot.

The courtroom was left in suspense for hours as they debated the question of whether the July 19, 2018, shooting at the Circle A Food Store near Clearwater was justified by self-defense, or a crime punishable by up to 30 years in prison.

Then after five hours of deliberations, the jurors sent a note to Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Joe Bulone at about 9:30 p.m. asking for clarity on what defines reasonable doubt in the justified use of deadly force.

But the judge and attorneys agreed that they had given the jury all the direction they could in the week-long trial. They brought the six jurors back into the courtroom to explain that.

“I don’t think I’m really going to be able to expound on what the instructions are legally,” Bulone said. “They are what they are.”

Then he sent them back into the jury room at 10:05 p.m.

Outside the courtroom, spectators including McGlockton’s parents sat on benches and paced the hallway. Michele Rayner-Goolsby, an attorney representing McGlockton’s parents, said she was “hopeful” jurors would come back with a guilty verdict. She added that she thought the state put on a “tremendous” case.

Shortly after the jury left for the deliberation room, an alternate spoke with reporters outside the courthouse. Keith Booe said he would have convicted Drejka. He said Drejka had enough time to stop and think when he hit the ground and pulled the trigger.

"He had the opportunity not to kill him,” Booe said.

RELATED STORY: The Clearwater parking lot shooting: Everything you need to know about the case

During this week’s trial, jurors heard from witnesses ranging from experts in toxicology and use-of-force to a man whom Drejka confronted five months earlier in the same parking lot. They also heard from Britany Jacobs, McGlockton’s girlfriend, whom Drejka first approached the day of the shooting.

“I was scared,” Jacobs, 26, told jurors. “I didn’t know who this strange, suspicious man was.”

Drejka’s four-attorney team pushed hard on self-defense.

Defense attorney John Trevena addresses members of the jury during closing arguments Friday in the Michael Drejka manslaughter trial in Pinellas County. A video of the shooting of victim Markeis McGlockton by defendant Michael Drejka at the Circle A Food Mart near Clearwater in July 2018 can be seen in the background. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]

“He did what he thought he had to do, in the moment, in the split-second time, given that he was attacked,” Drejka attorney John Trevena said during his closing argument.

“You may not agree with the law. But you took an oath as a juror to uphold the law.”

The state emphasized that McGlockton moved back once Drejka pulled his gun, rendering the fear of further danger unreasonable.

“He took the life of another human being without any legal justification,” prosecutor Fred Schaub said during his opening statement.

RELATED STORY: Think you know stand your ground? The recent Clearwater case tells us you’re probably wrong.

During closing arguments, Schaub was animated, using the whole courtroom, walking from the witness stand to the jury box, pointing, throwing his hands up. He knocked his fists on the courtroom’s wood panels to emphasize certain points.

Pinellas Pasco Assistant State Attorney Fred Schaub addresses the jury and points at defendant Michael Drejka on Friday during closing arguments in the Drejka manslaughter trial in Pinellas County. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]

“This isn’t Markeis McGlockton,” he says, holding up a photo from the autopsy. “It’s a body on an autopsy table.”

“He was a human being in our world. And is the taking of his life worth that? … Think about it: What have we come to in this country?”

The shooting has been fraught with controversy from the beginning, touching on polarizing issues including gun rights, self-defense and race.

Drejka is white. McGlockton was unarmed and black. The case drew comparisons to that of George Zimmerman, the Florida neighborhood watch volunteer who won acquittal in the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. That case spurred the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement.

But unlike in the Zimmerman case, video was a key component in Drejka’s trial. Surveillance images from the Circle A Food Store at 1201 Sunset Point Road captured the entire shooting, giving jurors a unique opportunity to put themselves at the scene.

RELATED STORY: Why video makes this Florida stand your ground debate different

Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri’s decision not to immediately arrest Drejka put the case on a national stage and sparked renewed debate about Florida’s stand your ground law. Gualtieri said his agency was precluded from arresting Drejka because of it.

“I don’t get to, and we don’t get to, substitute our judgment for Drejka’s judgment,” Gualtieri said last year.

The incident started when McGlockton and his family stopped at the convenience store about 3:30 p.m. His girlfriend, Britany Jacobs, parked in a handicap-reserved spot outside the convenience store and waited in the car with two of the couple’s children — who were 4 months and 3 at the time. McGlockton, 28, went into the store with their third child, Markeis Jr., who was 5.

Drejka pulled into the parking lot and approached Jacobs. He asked Jacobs why she had parked in the spot if she didn’t have a handicap-designated plate or placard. The two started arguing. It escalated to the point that others in the parking lot started paying attention.

One of the witnesses entered the store and told the clerk what was going on. McGlockton stepped back outside, walked up to Drejka and shoved him to the ground.

From a video showing the shooting of Markeis McGlockton by Michael Drejka.

Drejka pulled out a .40-caliber Glock handgun and shot McGlockton once in the chest. McGlockton was taken to Morton Plant Hospital and pronounced dead shortly after.

After the sheriff’s announcement, protests broke out calling for an arrest. Two prominent civil rights attorneys signed on to represent McGlockton’s family members. Democratic candidates for governor came through Clearwater like a revolving door, calling for a change to the stand your ground law. The Rev. Al Sharpton stopped in town, too, demanding the sheriff give up his badge.

About three weeks after the shooting, the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney’s Office charged Drejka with manslaughter.

"Drejka steadies the firearm with both hands," a detective wrote in his arrest warrant. "McGlockton immediately backs up when confronted with the firearm.”

From there, the case moved through the courts fairly quickly for the chronically bogged-down criminal justice system. Drejka appeared for several pretrial hearings to determine what evidence would be allowed at trial. McGlockton’s parents, Michael McGlockton and Monica Moore-Robinson, attended nearly every one, sitting steps away from their son’s shooter.

Michael McGlockton, father of the late Markeis McGlockton, listens to closing arguments in court Friday during the Michael Drejka manslaughter trial in Pinellas County. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]

One of the key moments came in April when prosecutors Schaub and Scott Rosenwasser successfully argued to allow the jury to hear about a prior gun threat by Drejka.

The target of the threat, Richard Kelly, said in court this week that he had parked his tanker truck in the same parking space at the same convenience store. Kelly walked out of the store to find Drejka walking around his truck and taking photos. They started to argue.

Then, Drejka “said ‘I should shoot you, kill you,’ ” Kelly told jurors.

Drejka later called Kelly’s boss, John Tyler, who also testified in court. Tyler told jurors that Drejka said that if he had a gun, he could have shot Kelly.

“I said, ‘I’m sorry you feel that way,’ ” Tyler told the jury. “ ‘I have a gun, and in my training, I was taught to remove myself from’ ” heated situations.

As the case moved through court over the last year, sideshows unspooled outside the courtroom as well. Drejka’s first lawyer, Lysa Clifton, recently gave up her law license during an investigation into the way she approached Drejka to represent him. She was on the case for about two months before withdrawing, citing “irreconcilable differences.”

A few months later, Drejka attorney John Trevena made headlines when he filed court documents spelling out salacious allegations against a couple who, Trevena wrote, stole money from his law firm and got his wife addicted to drugs.

He later dropped the accusations, but his personal life continued to make headlines when he was arrested on a charge of domestic battery against his now-ex-wife. Prosecutors ultimately dropped the charge.

The lead sheriff’s lead detective on the case was also arrested. Deputies said he arrived drunk to a crime scene. He faces a driving under the influence charge that’s still working its way through the court system.

None of that information made it into the courtroom, deemed irrelevant or prejudicial by the judge.

Instead, jurors heard the facts of the case, until the end, when lawyers for each side gave their closing arguments. While Drejka’s defense played up his perceived fear in the moments before he pulled the trigger, the state reminded the jury of what was lost.

“You know what Markeis McGlockton is guilty of?” Rosenwasser asked. “He’s guilty of loving and trying to protect his family, and he died because of it.”

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