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Should he have been set free?

Both sides of the death penalty debate hold up John Ballard's acquittal as an example of what's wrong.

Published March 5, 2006

NAPLES - John Ballard left Florida's death row in the middle of the night, whisked away by his mother and sister.

The state Supreme Court, in a highly unusual move, had acquitted Ballard on Feb. 23 in the murders of a young Naples couple, saying there was not enough evidence to convict him.

But there was no news conference, none of the huge fanfare usually associated with the release of people who have been spared a death sentence.

Still, those on both sides of the death penalty debate seized on the case as an example of what's wrong with the system. Opponents say it shows how innocent people can be executed.

"Here's a guy who survived death row, who was wrongly convicted," said Abe Bonowitz, director of Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.

Supporters say it shows how the guilty can go free. There was no DNA evidence to prove Ballard was innocent, but rather the evidence used to convict him was all circumstantial, the court said.

"There's no doubt in my mind" Ballard was guilty, said Kami Jones, stepmother of victim Jennifer Jones. "I've been over it 1,000 times and put it together over and over. I bet the judges didn't do that as many times as we did. But it all made sense."

Bonowitz, who at one point was in touch with Ballard's family, thinks the 37-year-old may have gone to be with family in California. "I know this sounds crazy, but when you just kick someone out on the street . . . and some people still think he's a murderer, it's not out of the question to try to protect him."

Wherever Ballard is, questions remain about his involvement in the murders of Jones and her fiance, Willie Ray Patin Jr. But he can never be tried for their murders again.

The family of the victims say their only hope for justice now lies with two unsolved murders from 1999 in Naples. Ever since his arrest, Ballard, a manual laborer who is married with three children, has been linked by the Collier County Sheriff's Office as a suspect in the murders, according to local news reports.

Last week, the Sheriff's Office denied making those statements.

* * *

Patin, 22, and Jones, 17, were supposed to move to Texas the day their bodies were found.

A boilermaker, Patin had gotten a job working with his father in his home state of Texas. On March 6, 1999, two days before their departure, the couple had a small party amid the boxes in their two-bedroom duplex. Jones, who had worked as a personal assistant, dealt marijuana out of her bedroom, according to court records. That night a friend at the party saw her with $1,000 in cash. Ballard, who lived across the street from the couple, was at the party, but at least one partygoer told police he left before she did.

Two days later, Jones' father and one of her friends broke into the apartment. They found Jones naked in her bedroom, her skull shattered. Patin was in the spare bedroom, his head in a similar condition.

Jones' Mazda was missing and so was the $1,000. The car turned up on a nearby street where Ballard's family once lived. Patin's blood was in the front seat.

The week before the murders, a man affiliated with a street gang shot through the couples' window over a dispute involving Jones. But Collier County investigators began to suspect Ballard in the murders.

Investigators had examined hundreds of hairs and fingerprints found in the apartment. One print on the frame of the couple's water bed - directly above where Jones' body was found - belonged to Ballard.

They also examined six hairs found in Jones' hand. One had a bulb root on it that allowed investigators to test it for DNA. It matched Ballard's DNA.

* * *

Before 1999 was over though, investigators had two more murders to solve - both with connections to Ballard's sister, Karen Hoffman, 47.

In November 1999, Hoffman and her husband, Glenn Soos, were found in their Naples home injured. Soos, who was terminally ill with cancer, had suffered a blow to the head. Hoffman had cuts all over her body.

A friend found the couple and called 911.

"There is blood everywhere. You got to get here," yelled the woman into the phone to 911. "Oh God, please hurry. . . . the one man has cancer and he don't have long to live anyway. Jesus Christ."

Hoffman got on the phone with 911.

"Yes, my husband's going to go ahead and drive me," Hoffman said. "I went to . . . and I hit my head.

"Okay and just you're hurt? No one else in there?"

"No, no one. My husband's going to drive me . . ."

Twelve hours later, though, Soos, 42, was dead at the hospital. His death was ruled a homicide, but remains an open investigation. No one has been arrested.

The Collier Sheriff's Office declined to discuss the case. But the Naples Daily News has reported that, "Hoffman was either not able or not willing to provide details of the attack due to her mental state."

A month later on Dec. 24, 1999, a sports bar server who had lived with Hoffman was found dead in her Naples home by her 6-year-old son.

Alberta Walsh, 36, had complained to co-workers about a man who was stalking her. Like Patin, Jones and Soos, Walsh was beaten to death. The case also remains unsolved.

An hour after Walsh's body was found, police stopped Ballard and Hoffman in a Dodge Caravan in Naples and charged them with crack cocaine possession.

Hoffman got probation. Ballard received a year in jail.

* * *

On May 30, 2001, Ballard was charged in the deaths of Jones and Patin. He was still in jail on the drug charges.

A month later, the Collier County Sheriff's Office was calling Ballard a suspect in the murders of Soos and Walsh, according to the Naples Daily News.

Ballard's trial began in April 2003.

Prosecutors had his hair and fingerprint. But defense lawyers argued that Ballard was a regular visitor in Jones and Patin's apartment.

At issue: whether the arm hair found in Jones' hand had been forcibly removed. Prosecutors argued that there was enough skin on it to show it was, but defense lawyers said it could have simply come out by Ballard brushing his arm against something.

The jury took four hours to convict Ballard, and recommended death, 9-3.

"It was the hair actually in the closed hand and the location of the fingerprint," said Dianne Heenan, 59, a Naples retiree who was a juror in Ballard's case. "We just felt as though it was pretty convincing, and it was probably not from a previous visit, particularly the hair because it was in her hand. ... There were a number of jurors who felt unequivocably that he was guilty."

Ballard's family tried to save him. They talked about how he was neglected as a child by a mother who had six children but was never there; how he was raised by his 11-year-old sister; how as a toddler he ran away often from day care, and then as he got older slept on convenience store roofs for two days at a time. And how he had been physically abused and received no medical care so that a neglected ear infection gave him permanent hearing loss.

The judge sentenced Ballard to death.

* * *

The Florida Supreme Court's acquittal of Ballard was rare, something that has happened perhaps just two other times in the past 30 years. He is the 26th prisoner to be released from death row since 1972.

Michael Orlando, Ballard's public defender, said he was a victim of pressure. There was media scrutiny, tight security, a packed courtroom and two sets of families demanding justice.

"You're dealing with the intensity of the courtroom in this particular case," Orlando said. "All these things tend to put a lot of pressure on jurors."

But Assistant State Attorney Michael Provost still thinks Ballard was guilty.

"I don't want to make it sound like sour grapes, but we thought we had enough evidence to convict and the jury did, too," Provost said. "There was one hair you could identify in that whole apartment and it happened to be John Ballard's and it happened to show up in her hand. I don't think that's probable unless he's a really unlucky guy. Same with the fingerprint."

Jones' and Patin's families agree.

"I don't understand how the Supreme Court could overrule a 12-person jury that found him guilty and nine out of 12 of them sentenced him to death," said Hazel Patin, Patin's mother in Orange, Texas.

The families are now watching to see whether Ballard is arrested in the murders of Soos and Walsh. The Naples Daily News has reported over and over that he is a suspect in those murders. One April 2003 article quoted the Collier County sheriff's spokeswoman saying, "he does remain the primary suspect in both. He has a direct tie with each victim." Other articles have referred to him as a "suspected serial killer."

But last week, the Sheriff's Office denied making those statements. "I don't think we ever called him a suspect in those murders," said the current spokeswoman, Stephanie Spell.

Neither Ballard nor his family members could be reached for comments. They have been lying low and trying to protect their brother from what they think is "a witch hunt," Bonowitz said.

Heenan, the juror, said she still thinks the jury made the right decision - even as she wonders at the Florida Supreme Court's ruling. "I liked seeing how the whole justice system worked and yet in the end, it sort of didn't work."

Times researcher Carolyn Edds and information from the Naples Daily News contributed to this report.

[Last modified March 5, 2006, 00:54:10]

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