Defense offers two theories

Published April 26, 2007

DADE CITY - Alfredie Steele Jr.'s attorneys cast a wide defense net to jurors Wednesday, suggesting essentially two divergent theories:

One, Steele may have shot and killed a Pasco sheriff's deputy on June 1, 2003 - but not intentionally.

Or two, other people could be responsible for Lt. Charles "Bo" Harrison's death.

Steele, 23, is accused of shooting Harrison from some bushes outside a Trilacoochee nightclub. He faces the death penalty if convicted.

His public defenders on Wednesday finally revealed their design for fighting a mass of evidence, namely Steele's recorded voice admitting shooting an SKS rifle toward the back of Harrison's patrol car.

But does the defense strategy contradict itself?

In his opening argument, lead attorney Tom Hanlon suggested that Steele never formed premeditation, an essential element of first-degree murder, the only charge that could send him to death row.

He dissected Steele's confession in which Steele admits shooting Harrison but says he didn't mean to kill him. Hanlon argued the confession should either be taken in its totality or dismissed.

"You can believe Mr. Steele when he says 'I shot,' " Hanlon said. "But you can't believe him when he says I didn't mean to hurt anybody?"

Also, Hanlon said, Steele was impaired.

"Did he know what he was doing?" Hanlon asked. "Was he too drunk?"

He called witnesses who said they saw Steele drinking and acting drunk the night of the shooting.

Sarah Arnold, who visited her boyfriend in the mobile home where Steele stayed, said she saw Steele drink alcohol, and when he ran out, down a bottle of NyQuil.

Undrea Hudson said she saw Steele at Rumors nightclub drinking a potent mix of two cognacs. Hudson is the sister of Michael Reed, a friend of Steele's who had died weeks earlier after fleeing a traffic stop. Prosecutors say Steele was distraught over Reed's death and sought revenge by shooting a deputy.

But then Hanlon called witnesses to weave in some conspiracy theories.

Sharon Higginbotham, who lives north of Lacoochee and doesn't know anyone involved in the case, said she was driving past Rumors the night of the shooting and heard gunshots. Then, from a road across from the club, she saw a red pickup speed away.

Prosecutors say Steele was driving his brother's tan Mercury when he committed the crime. A red pickup has never been found in connection with this case.

Two other witnesses testified about conversations they had with Nathaniel Vanzant, Steele's cousin who was once the prime suspect in the murder.

Jail inmate Allen Dorsey, who grew up with Steele and Vanzant, said he asked Vanzant early this year about Steele's case and got a cryptic reply.

"He said when it came down to it, he wasn't going to let him go down for it," Dorsey said.

Shaun Yeomans, who served time in prison with Vanzant, did not show up to testify. But Steele's attorneys read from his earlier deposition, in which he said Vanzant came to his hotel room about 6:30 the morning of the shooting. News of Harrison's death was on TV.

"He just said he was involved," Yeomans said in the deposition. "He was acting skittish, he was acting nervous."

That same morning, prosecutors say, Vanzant made a recording of Steele crying and apologizing to Harrison's family. Jurors heard that tape this week.

Steele's mother, Regina Clemmons, also took the stand, describing the tense hours after the shooting in which authorities focused their investigation on her son and she brought him to them.

"He kept saying he didn't understand why he should have to come because he didn't do anything," Clemmons said.

But State Attorney Bernie McCabe reminded Clemmons of how Steele described his state of mind during the car ride to the Sheriff's Office: "If I tell you how I'm really feeling, I'd have to tell you my mind. Then I'd have to open that door and jump out of it."

The 12-member panel, plus three alternates, heard two final state witnesses Wednesday who seemed to corroborate Steele's own statements.

An FBI ballistics expert said a bullet jacket found at a cook shed in the Withlacoochee State Forest matches a bullet fragment from Harrison's body. Steele said he shot the SKS rifle at the cook shed before going to Rumors.

And the medical examiner who did Harrison's autopsy confirmed on the stand what many already knew - that the lieutenant died of gunshot wounds to the back.

Both sides have finished calling witnesses. Closing arguments are scheduled for today, after which the jury will begin deliberating.

Molly Moorhead can be reached at 352 521-6521 or moorhead@sptimes.com.

The steele trial

Expected today

Attorneys for both sides will give their closing arguments in the murder trial of Alfredie Steele Jr. Then the case goes to the jury.


Times reporters' blog from the courtroom. Visit blogs.tampabay.com/breakingnews/the_steele_trial.