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Supreme Court ruling means longer wait in trial of ice cream man accused of Ruskin murders

TAMPA — Michael Keetley's long wait in jail got a little longer this week. The former ice cream man's trial is now scheduled for February 2020, when nearly a decade will have passed since he was accused in a Ruskin shooting spree that left two men dead.

The trial had been set to begin Monday. But in a hearing this week, it was postponed. The latest delay is the result of a Florida Supreme Court ruling last month that changed the state's rules about the admissibility of expert testimony.

The decision surprised both prosecutors and defense attorneys.

"Everybody is ready to go to trial," said Lyan Goudie, Keetley's defense attorney. "Especially my client."

But both sides concluded they now need more time.

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

The extra time will give Keetley a chance to challenge the key to the case against him — the state's expert testimony on handwriting and ballistics evidence.

Keetley, 48, is charged in the deaths of brothers Juan and Sergio Guitron, and the attempted killings of four other men in a November 2010 shooting rampage. Survivors said the assailant pulled up in a van beside a house where the victims had gathered on the porch. They said the man wore a shirt that read "sheriff" and got out carrying a shotgun. He asked for someone named "Creep," then told the men to get down on the ground before shooting them.

Sheriff's detectives focused on Keetley, an ice cream truck driver who had been robbed and shot months earlier. Word on the street was that he was on a mission to find the people who had attacked him and came to believe that a person named "Creep" was responsible.

In Keetley's house, investigators found a notebook with a page that had the name written on it, along with an address on Ocean Mist Court — the street where the shooting happened.

During a search of Wimauma property owned by Keetley's family, investigators also found spent bullet shell casings and projectiles fired from the weapon used in the crime, they said.

The findings would require the testimony of experts.

In recent years, Florida has waffled on the standard its courts can use to determine whether to allow expert testimony. In 2013, the Legislature adopted what is known as the Daubert standard, requiring a judge to determine that an expert's testimony is scientifically reliable before the evidence can go before a jury.

In Keetley's case, the state lined up three experts to testify regarding the firearms evidence. The defense hired its own expert to counter the precision of the ballistics. The state also has two experts ready to testify about similarities between the notebook writing and Keetley's handwriting.

Hearings were scheduled. Then in 2017, the Florida Supreme Court overruled the Legislature. The justices adopted what's known as the Frye standard — essentially, that any relevant expert testimony can go before a jury as long as it is not "new or novel."

Keetley's case trudged onward, with a trial date set for this month. But on May 23, the high court reversed itself, readopting the Daubert standard.

The decision came months after three new justices joined the court. It wasn't without dissent.

Justive Jorge Labarga wrote in favor of the Frye standard, arguing that it should be up to a jury to judge the experts.

"Where evidence is not based upon new or novel science, juries should be permitted to hear the testimony of experts, evaluate their credibility, and analyze and weigh their opinions and conclusions to reach a just determination on the issues presented by the case," Labarga wrote.

But in the case against Keetley, a judge will decide. The ballistics and handwriting evidence in his case will be the subject of a series of hearings set for November and December. By then, he will have been awaiting trial for nine years.

If found guilty, he will face an automatic life sentence.

Contact Dan Sullivan at Follow @TimesDan.