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Beating trial: Why a not guilty?

A defense attorney calls one young man's damning story about another "ridiculous." In the end, the jury agrees.

By MICHAEL KRUSE
Published March 18, 2007


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BROOKSVILLE - Only so many people know exactly what happened the night of March 28, 2006, when Pizza Hut delivery man Russell Sanford was beaten with a bat in the dark in a Spring Hill cul-de-sac. Maybe only one. Maybe two. Maybe more.

Here's what is known: Benjamin Jablon, 20, and Devin Politis, 18, were the only ones accused of the crime and charged with attempted murder, armed robbery, aggravated battery and grand theft auto. Politis pleaded guilty last month to all those things and got 15 years in prison and agreed to testify against Jablon this past week in the courtroom of Circuit Judge Jack Springstead.

The trial in a way turned into a contest between two stories. The first was told in about an hour on Wednesday morning by Politis, an uneducated, unsophisticated felon, and the second was told over the course of three days by Robert Attridge and CC Conde, Jablon's experienced, well-compensated attorneys from New Port Richey.

Jurors took just under two hours to reach their decision.

Jablon was acquitted in part because 1 there was more than enough "reasonable doubt" and (2) Attridge and Conde crafted a compelling, plausible alternative narrative that jurors could follow. They gave the jurors something they could believe.

Those certainly aren't the only reasons Jablon isn't going to spend the rest of his life in prison. There also was no physical evidence linking him to the crime, the people who lived in the area of the attack on Crescent Road saw and heard nothing, and investigators from the Hernando County Sheriff's Office didn't collect some pieces of evidence they could have or should have that might have led to Jablon, or anybody else, for that matter. Prosecutor Bill Catto's case had to be based just about exclusively on Politis' testimony.

His story: He went over to his mother's house that night. Jablon was dating his sister. His sister needed money. He said Jablon came up with an idea to rob a pizza man and he followed along because he was "an idiot kid." He said they "went for a walk" and happened to find a metal bat in a ditch. He said Jablon asked to use his cell phone and made the call just before 10 to the Pizza Hut on U.S. 19.

Politis said Jablon wanted him to hit Sanford with the bat but that he got "scared" and Jablon took the bat and "did it himself."

"I was too afraid," Politis said Wednesday on the stand. "I just froze up."

Jablon, he said, hit Sanford with the bat "three or four times, five times, a lot of times."

He said he started to run but that Jablon told him to get in Sanford's car, that Jablon drove and he sat in the passenger seat and then they stopped the car and tried to wipe away fingerprints and then got rid of it. He said Jablon took the money, he took the pizza, and they ran off in different directions.

Then he said he ran back to the mobile home and smashed his cell phone because he was afraid the call could be traced. He said he tried to eat the pizza but "felt too sick" and went to bed about 2 a.m.

The end.

"I heard that story, and I said, 'That isn't true,' " juror Al Berger said in a phone interview after the trial. "How could you expect us as a jury to believe that story? How in the world?"

Jablon is no saint. He has a record that includes theft, burglary, drugs, even mischief in the Hernando County Jail during his wait for trial. But the jurors didn't hear that.

Here's what they did hear: Attridge and Conde, Jablon's attorneys, over the course of the three days dropped bits of valuable information like little crumbs along the trail of a tale.

In jury selection, prospective jurors heard the name of the gang Folk Nation.

Which became important later.

Early in the trial, jurors learned that Sanford, the delivery man, smoked Marlboros and had left a pack on the passenger seat of his silver Mitsubishi Lancer. They learned that a photo had been taken of the pack during the investigation and it wasn't crushed - that it didn't look like someone had sat on the cigarettes.

Which became important later.

They learned that some shiftless teens and 20-somethings in the area called in an order for chicken wings to the same Pizza Hut on the same night at exactly the same time as the order for which Sanford was attacked.

Which became important later.

Two in that group were called as defense witnesses. They said they were members of Folk Nation. They said Politis was trying to become one.

Jurors also learned from a gang specialist at the Sheriff's Office that a handful of the guys in that group were pulled over at a traffic stop the morning after the attack and were acting nervous and said they had been at the State Road 50 Wal-Mart the night before buying a car stereo.

Jurors learned that they were "people of interest" early in the investigation but were not arrested.

Even though not one car stereo was bought that night at that Wal-Mart.

Even though the store's security camera doesn't show them in the store.

Finally, jurors learned that a number of Politis' fingerprints were found in Sanford's car, and that one of them was a right thumbprint, and that it was on the center console - even though Politis said he had been riding shotgun, sitting, presumably, on the pack of cigarettes that wasn't crushed.

Was Politis driving?

Was Politis alone?

Was he just the one who was dumb enough or unlucky enough to leave the wrong fingerprints in the wrong places?

Did others help with the beating?

Did others watch?

Were they members of Folk Nation?

Was it an initiation rite? Maybe with witnesses who could have been the same shiftless teens and 20-somethings who ordered the chicken wings? Was that done to have an alibi if necessary?

Is that what happened?

Maybe.

But by midday Wednesday, and definitely after closing arguments, the defense attorneys' story had started to take shape, if not come into outright believable focus.

Attridge told the jurors in his closing that Politis' story was "ridiculous" and "not worthy of belief."

The jurors agreed. They went with the story that was.

Michael Kruse can be reached at mkruse@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1434.

[Last modified March 17, 2007, 20:51:52]


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