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New trial in 'stand your ground' test case

A man convicted of manslaughter will get another chance to argue he acted in self-defense.

By COLLEEN JENKINS, Times Staff Writer
Published December 8, 2007


TAMPA - The first Hillsborough County case to test Florida's "stand your ground" law ended last year with a manslaughter conviction and 15-year prison sentence for James Behanna.

But Friday, exactly two years after Behanna fatally stabbed 21-year-old Robert Mears Jr., an appellate court granted the Tampa paralegal a new trial.

Hillsborough Circuit Judge Daniel Sleet "abused his discretion" by refusing to allow jurors to hear evidence that bolstered Behanna's self-defense argument, a 2nd District Court of Appeal panel said.

Behanna, 38, will ask Sleet on Monday to release him from prison as he awaits his next trial, said James Felman, his appellate attorney.

His chances seem good. The 2nd DCA, after finding recently that Behanna had significant grounds for appeal, ordered the circuit court to hold a hearing and grant a reasonable bail.

"We're just very hopeful," said Behanna's wife, attorney Aida Rodriguez.

On Dec. 7, 2005, Mears trespassed onto Rodriguez's law office property on N Florida Avenue, where Behanna worked as a paralegal. During his October 2006 trial, Behanna recalled how Mears screamed and had a "real wild-eyed" look.

Behanna went outside, carrying a small shovel, and asked Mears to leave. Mears, who was intoxicated according to a forensic toxicologist, threw Behanna to the ground.

After more tussling, Mears walked about 150 feet off the property. At trial, prosecutors said Behanna should have gone into the office for safety. Instead, he followed Mears in an attempt to detain him for police.

The crux of the criminal case against Behanna revolved around what happened next. The defendant said Mears grabbed him by the throat and threatened to kill him. But one witness for the prosecution said Mears only pushed Behanna back.

Behanna, known by friends as MacGyver because he carried a pocketknife, pulled out his knife and stabbed Mears twice.

Jurors could have acquitted Behanna under the "stand your ground" law, which allows people to meet force with force when they feel threatened.

But the jury didn't know that Mears had badly beaten his roommate and a woman immediately before heading to the law office. The roommate was described as having been "pulverized."

Appellate judges said Sleet should have admitted the "inextricably intertwined" evidence because it showed Mears' state of mind and explained his aggression toward Behanna. Prosecutors exacerbated the error, the appeals panel wrote, by describing Mears as just a kid who was "having a bad day."

"For Behanna to have a fair trial on his self-defense claim under the circumstances here, he is entitled to have the jury know that Mears had been engaged in a violent encounter with two people just minutes earlier," the opinion stated.

News of the reversal Friday was welcomed by Behanna's trial attorney, Ronald Cacciatore.

"It's nice to be right," he said.

Colleen Jenkins can be reached at cjenkins@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3337.