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Column

Steele case a chilling dose of real tragedy

By C. T. BOWEN
Published April 24, 2007


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Courtroom performances aren't wrapped up in 60 minutes, including commercial breaks.

They are methodical narration of facts, motions, objections and out-of-earshot bench conferences over rules of evidence. No Denny Crane theatrics nor Law & Order acceleration of justice.

Monday morning, 12 people from eastern Pasco County began hearing the case against Alfredie Steele Jr., accused of first-degree murder in the June 2003 shooting death of a sheriff's deputy.

It was a clinical, even sterile, resuscitation of the criminal circumstances by the prosecution. The SKS semiautomatic rifle. Bullets measuring 7.62 by 39 millimeters. Thirty-round banana clips. Yugoslavian and East German surplus bullets along with some commercially available Russian ammunition. Cartridge cases that fly to the right of a gunman. A cook shed in the Withlacoochee Forest. People who swap shoes.

And there was the admission of lost evidence (a misplaced metal fragment) and no recovered firearm, no tire tracks or footprints matching the car driven and the shoes worn by Steele.

In other words, here's the case, warts and all. Steele's public defenders offered no counter point, a common defense tactic to reserve their statements for later in the trial.

So jurors' initial impressions came strictly from the state. Prosecutors talked about the path of the bullets, four of which struck a Pasco Sheriff's Office patrol car parked to watch Rumors, a nightclub near Lacoochee.

Two bullets, from an SKS rifle, entered the trunk, rear seat, front seat and then through the shirt, into the skin, flesh and vital organs of the man sitting behind the wheel of the patrol car: sheriff's Lt. Charles "Bo" Harrison.

One bullet severed his spinal cord. The other hit his aorta. The man revered throughout the community, who was just days from retirement, was paralyzed and dying alone in the police cruiser when co-workers found him.

The emotionless monologue included a sanitary reference to Harrison as "that man."

"I didn't mean to kill that man," Steele is said to have told authorities.

It is the key component of the case against him. Prosecutors say his own words implicate him in Harrison's death and lay the foundation for a conviction that could lead to the death penalty.

Steele, 23, dressed in a conservative suit, also became known to jurors as that man.

Twice, a prosecutor stood at a lectern facing the jury box and pointed his left hand at Steele, sitting at a table just a few feet away.

Harrison died from "bullets that man fired."

"We have a picture of that man holding an SKS rifle."

Most of the community knew Harrison or knew of him. The high school football star who helped integrate the Pasco Sheriff's Office. The career cop was a coach, mentor and church choir member. A simple description of "that man" does not do him justice, but that is how the law works. Jurors must deal with facts, not emotions.

The families of the deceased and the accused, however, do not. It is about life and death.

Sitting among the spectators, Sandy Harrison cried when she heard the description of the bullets taking her father's life.

She wasn't alone. During a morning break in the trial, Steele's siblings stood outside in the courtyard and also cried.

Each family shed tears for their personification of "that man."

[Last modified May 8, 2007, 12:58:35]


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