LARGO — Prosecutors will be able to tell the jury in the manslaughter trial of Michael Drejka about the time he threatened to shoot man in an argument about a handicap parking space outside a Clearwater convenience store.
The circumstances of that Feb. 14, 2018 incident resemble the incident for which Drejka, 48, will stand trial: The July 19 shooting that killed 28-year-old Markeis McGlockton after they argued about the same handicap spot outside the same store.
Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Joseph Bulone called the incidents "amazingly similar" and said the earlier confrontation is fair game for the state to try and rebut Drejka's argument that he fired in self-defense.
"The similarities are more than striking," Bulone said during a court hearing Friday. "Same spots. Same store. Same actions by the defendant."
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The defense prevailed in keeping another piece of their client's past on the cutting room floor: A 2012 incident in which Drejka is accused of flashing a gun at a driver in front of him who stopped at a yellow light. Bulone ruled that prosecutors can only bring up that case if the defense first opens the door, such as referring to it during the trial.
Bulone also excluded a detail of the 2018 confrontation in which Richard Kelly, who is black, said Drejka, who is white, used a racial slur while speaking to him. McGlockton was also black, and race became a central issue in last year's protests calling for Drejka's arrest. Pinellas County's sheriff at first declined to arrest Drejka, but prosecutors later filed charges.
The judge said "there's really no evidence, frankly, that any of this had to do with race."
The rulings dealt a blow to Drejka's defense. His four-lawyer team argued both cases should be excluded because they were irrelevant and could mislead the jury.
"The only thing that's relevant in this case is his reasonable fear at the time of this incident," said attorney William Flores.
But attorney John Trevena pointed out after the hearing that the defense came out victorious in Bulone's decision to leave out one of the prior cases and an inflammatory detail from the other case.
"Common sense is going to prevail in this case," Trevena said.
Five witnesses testified during the hearing, including Kelly and two men who corroborated his Feb. 14, 2018 account.
Kelly told the court he had parked his work tanker truck in a handicap-reserved parking space at the Circle A Food Store on Sunset Point Road. Kelly, who works at a septic tank company blocks away, went inside to buy a soda. When he came back out, a man whom he later learned was Drejka was walking around the truck taking photos.
Kelly, 32, said he grew worried because he keeps cash from clients in the truck. He asked Drejka what he was doing.
Drejka asked him if he was disabled, and Kelly said no. The men started to argue, and Kelly told the court that Drejka got "very loud, like outrageous."
Drejka then told him, "I should shoot you n-----," Kelly said.
The store owner, Abdalla Salous, testified that he went outside that day to try to diffuse the argument. Kelly drove away. Salous told Drejka to knock it off or he would call the police.
"I told him it's not worth it to fight for a stupid reason like that," Salous said. "He said, 'I can't help it. I always get myself in trouble.'"
Pinellas-Pasco Assistant State Attorney Fred Schaub seized on that statement to cement his argument that the jury should hear about this confrontation when the case is set to go to trial in August.
"He knew better," Schaub said. "Just like a kid in school who was told by his teacher, 'Don't do it anymore,' he was told by the owner of this business, 'Don't do it anymore.'"
Later that day, Drejka called the owner of the septic tank business to complain about Kelly. Prosecutors furnished Drejka's phone records, which corroborated the call.
Drejka told the business owner, John Tyler, that he was going to send the pictures of his employee's parking job to the police. Then, Tyler testified, Drejka told him that he was lucky he didn't shoot his driver, Kelly.
"I said 'I'm sorry to hear you say that. I'm a gun owner. I carry legally,'" Tyler said. "'And one of the first things you learn as a gun owner is to not put yourself in situations like that.'"
Bulone pointed out that Drejka's mindset plays an important rule in his claim that he acted in self-defense.
In assessing that claim, one question jurors consider is whether another person would have done what Drejka did. The other is what was going through Drejka's head that led him to pull the trigger?
"Is he a great guy enforcing the laws and protecting the disabled from people who violate the law?" the judge said. Or is he "a guy who also has a firearm and is … just begging to find an opportunity to use this thing?"
Contact Kathryn Varn at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8913. Follow @kathrynvarn.