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    Insect bite may sway life sentence

    A man convicted of murder was bit at the jail. His lawyer says medication influenced a key decision during his trial.

    By CURTIS KRUEGER, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published May 24, 2002


    For Anthony A. Lanza, a murder conviction and life sentence may hinge on the bug or spider bite on his back.

    Lanza's attorney said Thursday that her client recently had been bitten by a spider at the Pinellas County Jail.

    She said he was being treated with medications, including the painkiller Darvocet, at the time he agreed to waive his constitutional right to a unanimous verdict last month.

    The bite and the medicine mean Lanza "was not mentally or physically fit" to make that crucial decision at the close of his trial April 29, his attorney, Maura Kiefer, argued in a memorandum she gave to the court Thursday.

    "I think that he was very sick and in pain and under the influence of medication," Kiefer said afterward.

    She said Lanza had a large boil on his back, which had to be drained with an inch long incision by a jail physician. She said she was not aware of his injury or medicated state at the time.

    Kiefer is seeking a new trial for Lanza.

    Saying that prosecutors needed more time to study this new information, Circuit Judge Nancy Moate Ley reset a hearing for Tuesday and expressed frustration that Kiefer had not told the State Attorney's Office about it earlier.

    It's not the first time inmates have complained about spider bites at the jail, but sheriff's officials previously have said fire ants were biting the prisoners. Sheriff's Sgt. Greg Tita said Thursday he knew of nothing to contradict that, and said the jail is exterminated regularly.

    Kiefer also says Lanza should get a new trial because of missteps by prosecutors.

    Lanza, 26, was accused of acting as the getaway driver in a 1998 robbery of a Subway sandwich shop in South Pasadena.

    Robert A. Pasquince was convicted of robbing $277 from the cash register and shooting a 24-year-old clerk and mother, Ann Marie Sherman.

    Under the law, Lanza can be found guilty of first-degree murder, even though he didn't fire the gun.

    During his trial last month, jurors announced they were deadlocked 11-1, and could not reach a verdict. At the time, no one knew if the 11 wanted to convict or acquit.

    So on April 29, Lanza made the rare decision to waive his right to a unanimous verdict, essentially gambling that jurors were leaning toward setting him free.

    They weren't. They had voted 11-1 to convict. With a first-degree murder conviction, Lanza was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

    Kiefer visited Lanza at the jail the next day and learned of his injury and medication. She said medical records show Lanza described his injury as a spider bite. Medical records call it an insect bite in one report, Kiefer said, but she was unable to read all the doctor's notes.

    Prosecutor Bruce Bartlett said Kiefer made "an intentional decision to not provide that information to the state" until immediately before Thursday's hearing.

    Ley questioned the late notice also, saying it was common practice for attorneys to give their opposing counsel a heads-up about newly discovered evidence.

    Kiefer said after Thursday's hearing the spider information was contained in a memorandum of law which she was not required to hand over to prosecutors early.

    Kiefer also wrote that Judge Ley had failed to ask Lanza on April 29 if he was taking any medication that would prevent him from understanding the proceedings.

    Also, she wrote, Judge Ley should have informed Lanza "that he was already entitled to a mistrial, because, the jury had already announced it would stay deadlocked."

    Kiefer also criticized prosecutors, saying they made improper commments during the trial and failed to reveal that "jailhouse snitches" who testified hoped to gain favorable treatment in their own criminal cases.

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