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Retrial starts in 1980 slaying

The man's conviction and death sentence may have been based on the belief h e was robbing the teacher who was killed.

Published October 18, 2006

More than a quarter century ago, an art teacher was brutally stabbed to death in his Belleair home.

The Feb. 8, 1980, murder of Gerald Hollinger was unsolved for 15 years. That is, authorities say, until a detective picked up the cold case and, with some clever probing, got the investigation heated up.

An arrest was made. A conviction was secured. A death sentence was pronounced.

But two years later, the case was overturned on appeal.

This week, prosecutors again will seek a conviction and death sentence for Paul J. Fitzpatrick, 48. His first-degree murder trial is expected to last a week or more.

In another interesting twist, one of the prosecutors, Glenn Martin, and one of the assistant public defenders on the other side, Christine "Chris" Helinger, are running against each other for a judicial post in next month's general election.

During opening statements Tuesday morning, Martin told jurors that fingerprints, footprints and a hotel room receipt - all found in Hollinger's home - link Fitzpatrick to the murder.

That connection wasn't made quickly. Police initially learned that the occupants of the hotel room on the receipt had given aliases and a false driver's license number. The investigation stalled.

Fifteen years later, Pinellas sheriff's Detective Mike Ring gave the case another look. Ring, a former Massachusetts police officer, realized the number given at the hotel wasn't a driver's license number, but a Social Security number from that state.

Ring sent the prints to the Massachusetts State Police, who matched them to Fitzpatrick, who had a previous criminal record.

It turned out that Fitzpatrick had held a knife to a gay man's throat and robbed him, police said.

Days later, Fitzpatrick took a bus to Florida. Investigators believe he did the same thing to Hollinger, who was gay, but took the crime a step further.

Fitzpatrick insisted a friend was responsible for the murder, but authorities said the physical evidence pointed to him.

A jury convicted him of murder in February 2000 and recommended a death sentence, which a judge imposed.

But the Florida Supreme Court tossed out the conviction in 2003 and said Fitzpatrick had to be tried again.

The court ruling said jurors were instructed at trial that they could convict Fitzpatrick of first-degree murder if they determined the killing was either premeditated or a felony murder.

A felony murder is a killing that occurs during another serious crime, such as robbery.

In Fitzpatrick's case, prosecutors said the killing was committed during a robbery and a burglary.

But the court ruling said evidence indicated that Fitzpatrick was invited into the victim's home before the killing. That means under the law at the time of Fitzpatrick's conviction, a burglary was not committed.

Because the justices didn't know what murder theory jurors used, the conviction had to be reversed, the ruling said.

Now, three years later, Fitzpatrick's second trial has begun.

Assistant Public Defender Kandice Friesen told jurors that there is enough reasonable doubt in the case to acquit Fitzpatrick.

"You're going to come out of this understanding how an innocent man could be accused of a crime he didn't commit," she said.

[Last modified October 17, 2006, 23:41:05]

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