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State prevails on several fronts as trial of Clearwater parking lot shooter looms

LARGO — It was a good day in court for the state and a bad day for the defense of Clearwater parking lot shooter Michael Drejka.

Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Joseph Bulone sided against the defense and with prosecutors on several motions during a lengthy pre-trial hearing held Friday to settle several issues weeks ahead of Drejka's manslaughter trial, scheduled to start Aug. 19.

Drejka, 48, is accused of fatally shooting Markeis McGlockton on July 19, 2018 in a dispute over a handicap-reserved parking spot. The death of McGlockton, a 28-year-old father of four, drew renewed national attention to Florida's self-defense law.

RELATED STORY: Five things to know on the one-year anniversary of the Clearwater parking lot shooting

Still to be decided is whether the jury will see certain versions of the surveillance video of the shooting, and the moments before and after. Bulone bumped that issue to an Aug. 9 hearing next week after Drejka's lawyers said they were still waiting on an expert witness to finish reviewing the videos.

Here's a rundown:

• Bulone denied a long-shot motion by the defense asking that prosecutors Fred Schaub and Scott Rosenwasser be disqualified from the case. Defense attorney John Trevena argued the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office bowed to political pressure when they charged Drejka last year. Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri initially declined to make an arrest, saying the shooting was justified under Florida's stand your ground law.

Trevena also hung his argument on a verbal scuffle between Drejka and the shooting victim's father, Michael McGlockton, before a June pre-trial hearing. Trevena tried to argue that prosecutors didn't take it seriously enough and that the incident created a conflict of interest.

The judge didn't buy it, but did give the courtroom a warning:

"Everyone needs to be on their best behavior," he said. "Do not communicate with anyone on the other side."

• The jury will not hear from the sheriff himself, either. Bulone granted two motions filed by the State Attorney's Office and the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office essentially asking the court to bar Gualtieri from testifying.

Defense attorney Theresa Jean-Pierre Coy argued that this case was unique because the sheriff held two lengthy news conferences after the shooting detailing his analysis of why he felt the case fell within the bookends of stand your ground.

But Bulone agreed with the state and Sheriff's Office, who argued the opinion of the sheriff about how the law applies to this case would be inadmissible. That's up to the jury.

For similar reasons, the judge granted a request from the state to bar the jury from hearing why the Sheriff's Office declined to make an arrest in this case. The bottom line is that the sheriff ultimately referred the case to the state attorney, he said. The decision settled a question on the minds of many in the months after the shooting: Would Gualtieri's unusually public analysis of the case help Drejka's defense?

"We don't care what Sheriff Gualtieri thought then or what he thinks now," Bulone said.

• The jury also will not learn of other facts and evidence that prosecutors sought to block.

Markeis McGlockton had marijuana in his pocket, but not in his system, at the time of the shooting. Bulone agreed with prosecutors that it's irrelevant. What will likely come up during trial because it showed up on his autopsy is that McGlockton had MDMA — the amphetamine commonly known as ecstasy — in his system.

McGlockton's criminal history is irrelevant as well, Bulone said, with an exception. If the defense can prove McGlockton had a reputation in the community for violence, that could come into play to show he was acting in line with that reputation when he shoved Drejka to the ground in the moments before the shooting. But, the judge said, establishing someone's reputation these days, especially in a county as populous as Pinellas, is going to be difficult.

The jury will also not learn that the lead sheriff's detective on the case was arrested on a driving under the influence charge and fired in January. During one of the tenser moments of the hearing, Trevena questioned whether ex-detective George Moffett was also intoxicated when he investigated the Drejka case.

If they could find evidence of that, the judge said he'd reconsider.

"This is ridiculous," Rosenwasser interjected.

• The jury will not visit the scene of the shooting, the parking lot of the Circle A Food Store. The defense made the request so that jurors could better understand the change in gradient of the pavement and the height difference between the two men, said defense attorney William Flores.

Bulone said between photos and video of the shooting, that wouldn't be necessary. But he will allow the defense to call a witness to talk in detail about those factors.

• Responding to a request from the defense that jurors be interviewed individually, Bulone said that potential jurors will be questioned as a group, which is standard, but individual jurors may approach the bench if there are concerns that pre-trial publicity could taint the jury pool.

The judge added that he will emphasize to potential jurors not to give their opinions on the case. It's unlikely they'll find any jurors who don't know about the case, Bulone said, but that won't necessarily disqualify them.

"We just have to get people who have an open mind."

Contact Kathryn Varn at kvarn@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8913. Follow @kathrynvarn.

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