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Man gets new trial in Eckerd murder case

The appellate court says the trial judge failed to read to jurors an important special instruction before their deliberations.


© St. Petersburg Times, published February 15, 2001

ST. PETERSBURG -- Valentine's Day has been a difficult time for Virgil Sargeant since the 1995 murder of his wife, Tonya.

He and Tonya, a night manager at an Eckerd drug store in St. Petersburg, married on that day in 1991. Since her death during a robbery outside the store, Sargeant said the day can bring uneasy emotions.

This Valentine's Day was harder than most.

On Wednesday, one of the three men convicted of murder for his part in Tonya Sargeant's killing won another chance at freedom.

The 2nd District Court of Appeal overturned the first-degree murder conviction of Mark Richard Thomas and ordered a new trial for the 31-year-old who was a co-worker at the same Eckerd where Mrs. Sargeant worked.

The appeals court said a Pinellas-Pasco circuit judge erred during Thomas' 1996 trial by failing to read to jurors a special instruction before their deliberations. That instruction would have told jurors they could find Thomas not guilty if they believed he tried to halt his participation in the robbery before a friend shot and killed Mrs. Sargeant.

"It just isn't right," said Virgil Sargeant, 43, an Eckerd employee. "When you're not expecting something to happen, it has a way of creeping right up on you like this."

It's just the latest loss for Sargeant. Last year, he sought civil damages against Publix Super Markets, which owned the Northeast Shopping Plaza where the robbery occurred and was in charge of security.

A jury found the supermarket chain was not liable for damages.

Thomas and two friends planned to rob the Eckerd where Mrs. Sargeant worked. As the inside man, Thomas fed his buddies the details they needed to set up the robbery.

But their plot went awry. On the night of Dec. 9, 1995, as Mrs. Sargeant and a co-worker walked out of the store, one of Thomas' friends, Matthew Ben Rodriguez, ran up to them. He shot Mrs. Sargeant once in the head and ran off with a bag she carried.

A bag that the trio thought contained thousands of dollars in receipts actually contained only the 44-year-old woman's toiletries.

Rodriguez, convicted of murder and sentenced to life as the triggerman, testified at Thomas' trial that he intended to scare Mrs. Sargeant with a .40-caliber Glock while a third friend, Donald Miller, sprayed her with Mace.

He said he pulled the trigger by accident.

But Thomas said he didn't know Rodriguez was going to use a gun. Thomas and Miller backed out of the robbery at the last minute, driving away and leaving Rodriguez to carry out the robbery alone and run away on foot.

Defense attorney Joe McDermott said Thomas abandoned the robbery and so could not be held responsible for what his friend did.

But prosecutors said at trial that Thomas had to do more than that to be found not guilty, including calling police or warning Mrs. Sargeant.

Rodriguez testified that Thomas knew he was armed and in fact bought the bullets for the gun.

But the appeals court said some testimony supported that Thomas and Miller tried to halt their participation and tried to tell Rodriguez to stop.

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