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Murder trial takes shape in death of 9-year-old Tampa girl

Granville Ritchie at his 2014 arraignment, where he pleaded not guilty to the rape and murder of a 9-year-old girl. His trial in the death of Felecia Williams is set for September. [Times | 2014]
Published Jun. 18

TAMPA — The murder trial of Granville Ritchie will feature expert witnesses testifying on obscure topics like plant DNA, emotional testimony from those who knew the 9-year-old murder victim and a pool of more than 150 prospective jurors who will be asked if they could recommend that the defendant, if convicted, be put to death.

That was the snapshot that emerged in a courtroom Tuesday morning as lawyers from both sides made arguments to shape the coming trial. Among their requests: that Ritchie's trial be moved to September.

It has already been five years since Ritchie, 40, was accused of killing Felecia Williams. Last month, Hillsborough Circuit Judge Michelle Sisco wouldn't budge on a July trial date, even as attorneys for the state and defense expressed concern that they might not be ready in time.

They raised those concerns again Tuesday. Prosecutors said one of their lawyers would be taking a vacation at the end of July. The defense said they still need to question some members of Ritchie's family, who live in an area of Kingston, Jamaica plagued by violence.

Sisco reluctantly pushed the trial back to September. But the judge warned the attorneys that she would not allow any more delays.

"With God as my witness, there will be no more continuances in this case," Sisco said. "It is time for Mr. Ritchie to have his day in court. It is time for the victim's family to have their day in court. It's time for finality."

Related: Mother of girl found dead in Tampa Bay still looking for answers

Jury selection will begin Sept. 3, the judge said. The 150-person pool will undergo questioning in the largest courtroom in the George Edgecomb Courthouse. They will be asked if they have heard details about the case, if they could commit to serving on a jury for three weeks, and if they could consider imposing capital punishment.

The trial is slated to last through Sept. 20.

The prosecution has lined up between 50 and 60 witnesses. They include an expert who will talk about plant material that investigators found lodged near the headlights of a Lexus that Ritchie is said to have been driving shortly after Felecia disappeared. Investigators believe the plants are similar to vegetation in the area near the waters off the east side of the Courtney Campbell Causeway, where the girl's body was found.

Other experts are expected to testify about soil samples from the area, which police said is consistent with dirt on the floorboards of the Lexus. A weather expert may also testify about currents and tide patterns in the area where Felecia was found.

Background: Granville Ritchie charged in murder of 9-year-old Felecia Williams

The girl disappeared on May 16, 2014. She left her east Tampa home that day with a family friend, Eboni Wiley, who took her to an apartment in Temple Terrace. There, police said she met up with Ritchie. In the late afternoon, Wiley left the apartment. She returned more than an hour later to find Ritchie shirtless and sweating, according to police, claiming the 9-year-old had "run off."

The girl's body was found on May 17, 2014. Temple Terrace police led a sprawling three-month investigation with assistance from the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, the Tampa Police Department, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the FBI and several other agencies. They focused on Ritchie, who was already jailed on unrelated sex crime charges. Late in the summer of 2014 summer came charges of murder, sexual battery, and aggravated child abuse.

Past coverage: State to seek death penalty in slaying of 9-year-old Tampa girl

Prosecutors announced their intent to seek the death penalty in 2015. But part of the delay in Ritchie's case stemmed from a 2016 U.S. Supreme Court decision which declared Florida's death penalty procedure to be unconstitutional because the state did not require juries to be unanimous in recommending capital punishment.

That decision prolonged the court proceedings for two years, prosecutors said.

Contact Dan Sullivan at dsullivan@tampabay.com. Follow @TimesDan.

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