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Convictions of Boys in Father's Death Overturned

Judge may order a new trial, saying the prosecutors' differing theories of the slaying had violated the rights of the Florida youths.

October 18, 2002|John-Thor Dahlburg | Times Staff Writer

MIAMI — A judge on Thursday threw out the adult murder convictions of two Florida boys, found guilty in the beating death of their father with a baseball bat when they were 12 and 13.

Circuit Judge Frank Bell in Pensacola said prosecutors violated the boys' rights by arguing two contradictory theories of the slaying at the same time, calling the tactic "unusual and bizarre." Bell said he would order a new trial for the brothers, Alex and Derek King, if prosecutors and defense attorneys couldn't agree among themselves on how to resolve the case.

Alex, now 13, and Derek, 14, had been facing prison terms of 20 years to life because prosecutors had charged them as adults in a murder case that attracted national attention.

The brothers' trial, which ended Sept. 6 with guilty verdicts for second-degree murder without a weapon and arson, was the latest in a number of Florida court proceedings where juveniles have been tried for murder as adults and sentenced to long stretches in adult prisons.

The boys' father, Terry King, 40, was killed by repeated blows to the head from an aluminum bat last Nov. 26 as he dozed in his recliner. His home in Cantonment, Fla., was set on fire.

In an odd legal maneuver, prosecutors charged King's two sons in the killing, but held a separate murder trial for a family friend and convicted child molester, Ricky Chavis, 40. He was acquitted, but the verdict was kept sealed until jurors returned a verdict in the boys' case.

Jurors from the boys' trial said they came to believe that it was Chavis who bludgeoned the elder King with the bat, while the boys helped by letting him in the house. They were shocked to learn that another jury had acquitted Chavis.

"We never thought that these boys committed the crime. Never," Lynne Schwarz, the forewoman, said during a rally held Thursday morning on the brothers' behalf outside the Pensacola courthouse.

Dennis Corder, one of the lawyers for Derek King, accused Assistant State Atty. David Rimmer of prosecutorial misconduct, a serious charge, for organizing two trials based on different theories for the same murder.

"In trial one, he said Mr. Ricky Chavis did it, and in trial two, that Derek King did it," Corder said in a telephone interview. The prosecution claimed the younger brother stood by and egged him on.

After the killing, the boys gave taped confessions to police exonerating Chavis, but later contended that Chavis had bludgeoned their father as they hid in the trunk of his car.

Alex King also testified he had been molested by Chavis. The man still faces separate trials for the alleged sexual molestation and on charges of evidence tampering and being an accomplice after the fact to murder.

Rimmer, the prosecutor, could not immediately be reached for comment after Bell's ruling. But he told the Pensacola News Journal beforehand that he was satisfied with the trials' outcome and planned to ignore the morning rally.

"That's their right if they want to protest," the News Journal quoted Rimmer as saying. "Personally, I don't have time to argue with every little yellow dog that barks along the highway."

Corder said the brothers' trial had yet again revealed a "hole" in Florida's criminal justice system for minors accused of serious crimes. "There is no sane middle ground," he said. "The juvenile system can only hold someone until he is 18, but to put someone [tried and convicted as an adult] in prison for the rest of their life is over the top. If this were a U.S. citizen accused in a foreign country and they were exposed to that, we'd say what an incredibly unfair justice system they have."

Schwarz, the former jury forewoman, said Thursday she and the other members of the panel never dreamed a guilty verdict might lead to a prison sentence for the King brothers.

"We always thought that there was going to be some kind of rehabilitation, that the boys were going to be taken somewhere where they could have a new life and be productive citizens," she said.

In his arguments to Schwarz and the other jurors, Rimmer had urged them to ignore the brothers' angelic appearance, and read a letter Alex King had written to his father that accused him of mental abuse and referred to their home as a prison.

Two other Florida teenagers were convicted of murder as adults and sentenced last year to long prison terms: Lionel Tate to life without parole and Nathaniel Brazill to 28 years.

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This story includes material from Associated Press.

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