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Eight years later, state drops death penalty in Ruskin double-murder case

Michael Keetley, a former ice cream vendor in southeast Hillsborough, will now face life in prison if found guilty.

TAMPA — For eight years, Hillsborough prosecutors said they wanted to send Michael Keetley to death row.

On Monday, they changed their minds.

Assistant State Attorney Jay Pruner announced in court that the state would no longer seek a death sentence in the county's longest-running murder case that has yet to see trial.

Keetley, 48, who has been jailed for nearly 3,000 days, appeared perplexed at the news. Clad in handcuffs and a red jail uniform, he raised his brow and shook his head as Pruner spoke.

A former ice cream truck driver, Keetley is accused of murdering Juan and Sergio Guitron and wounding four other men in a November 2010 Ruskin shooting spree.

If a jury finds him guilty, Keetley will now face an automatic sentence of life in prison.

"Our thoughts and prayers are with the Guitron family, and we are doing everything we can to make sure the defendant dies in prison for his crimes," Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren said in a written statement.

Warren has decided against pursuing the death penalty in several of the cases he inherited when he became the county's top prosecutor two years ago. But he has continued to seek death in others.

The Keetley case has spanned a period of dramatic changes to Florida's system of capital punishment that have made it more difficult for prosecutors to obtain death sentences. In 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the state's death penalty procedures were unconstitutional because the law did not require a jury to be unanimous in recommending a punishment. The law was later re-written to require a unanimous jury.

Keetley's attorney, Lyann Goudie, said after court that she had gathered mitigating evidence. Some of it had to do with the fact that Keetley was previously the victim of a robbery during which he was shot several times. Goudie said that evidence was recently presented in a letter to the State Attorney's Office.

Keetley has been charged with the fatal shootings since December 2010. Witnesses told investigators that he had been on a mission to find the people who had robbed his ice cream truck and shot him. Prosecutors believe he mistakenly targeted the Guitron brothers and their friends.

The victims were chatting and playing cards early that Thanksgiving morning on the porch of a Ruskin home when a dark van pulled up. A man got out and approached wearing a shirt that read "sheriff." He carried what was described as a shotgun. He asked for someone named "Creeper." He then told them all to get down. As the victims dropped to their knees, five were shot. The gunman then drove off.

Keetley was arrested a few days later.

In a hearing last year, Goudie highlighted several weaknesses in the state's case, including imprecise ballistic evidence and questionable eyewitness identification. She persuaded a judge to grant bail, which was set at $900,000. But Keetley has been unable to pay the required sum so he has lingered in jail.

The state's announcement Monday brought an abrupt end to long-pending litigation over who would handle Keetley's defense.

Capital cases typically have two attorneys; one to handle the trial, and the other for the penalty phase. Goudie repeatedly sought to have another lawyer appointed to assist her.

In 2017, a judge ordered Public Defender Julianne Holt to help. But Holt's office contested their appointment. The matter made it all the way to the Florida Supreme Court.

Goudie asked to withdraw last month, a move that would have forced Holt's office to take the case in its entirety. But with the death penalty off the table, Goudie will now continue to represent Keetley at his trial, which is set for June.