The forewoman of the panel that cleared two in a road rage case hints that it weighed aggressive acts on both sides.
By WILLIAM R. LEVESQUE
© St. Petersburg Times, published March 9, 2000
LARGO -- For the jury forewoman in the Tarpon Springs road rage trial, Wednesday was particularly draining.
A day after the jury acquitted two men of attempted second-degree murder charges, jury forewoman Susan R. Kohler heard the same question repeatedly:
How could jurors possibly have cleared the men?
"It hurt that people who never spent a second in the courtroom listening to the evidence could criticize our verdict," Kohler said late Wednesday. "I'm a human being. It was difficult. It was very stressful."
Kohler provided a tantalizing hint about why the jury reached its decision, though she and other jurors still refused to discuss what evidence specifically influenced their verdict.
But Kohler said she was bothered by the aggressive behavior of Michael Daniel, the brother of one of the two men whose skulls were cracked by shovels, during the March 31 confrontation over a minor traffic dispute.
Jurors acquitted Theofilos Mamouzelos and Christopher Stamas on Tuesday. On Saturday, a judge cleared Michael Saroukos.
"The whole confrontation had reached a point of calming down until Mike Daniel stepped in and escalated things," Kohler said. "I don't feel Mike Daniel can walk away from this and think he had nothing to do with it.
"It frustrates me to see him walk away thinking he played no part in making things worse, that he's purely innocent. Maybe it wouldn't have happened if Mike Daniel had kept his mouth shut. He's got to live with himself.
"But he's quick to point fingers at everybody else, isn't he?"
Even so, Kohler, 28, of St. Petersburg refused to say what, if any, role Mike Daniel's testimony had on the verdict.
"The verdict was based on the evidence, or the lack of evidence," she said. "That's all I'm going to say" about deliberations.
Mamouzelos, 20, and Stamas, 19, were passengers in a pickup driven by their friend, Saroukos, 24, when they came upon a slowly moving Chevrolet Blazer driven by Luis Collado. Mike and Jody Daniel, and their brother, James Daniel, were passengers in the Blazer.
Saroukos honked his horn. Men from both vehicles exchanged obscene gestures as the vehicles pulled over on Anclote Road.
Mike Daniel testified that he quickly jumped from the Blazer to confront Saroukos. Daniel said he screamed at them, "What's your f---ing problem! Want to fight? Want to fight? I'll kick your ass!"
Mamouzelos and Stamas said they didn't want any problems and returned to their truck. Mike Daniel then went to Saroukos, who was standing talking to Collado, and told him to leave, too.
At that point, Mamouzelos and Stamas returned with shovels and hit Jody Daniel and Collado. Mamouzelos testified they did so because they thought Saroukos was about to be beaten, perhaps killed.
Mike Daniel on Wednesday discounted Kohler's comments, saying of his behavior, "Maybe nothing would have happened. That's just (Kohler) assuming. The defendants were obviously the aggressors, not me."
Kohler said the defendants' claims of self-defense were not a deciding factor in the verdict, as was much speculated by lawyers.
The jury's verdict has been a subject of much discussion across the Tampa Bay area. In Tarpon Springs, publicity over the case has been painful.
Tarpon Springs Mayor Frank DiDonato said, "Unfortunately, that's an event that was tough to find any pride in. It was a negative for our community, and even the people involved in it would agree with me."
Kohler, the only one of six jurors who would comment about the case, said she later read Circuit Judge Brandt C. Downey III's comments to the defendants moments after their acquittal.
The judge scolded the men for their behavior and told them they were lucky to be acquitted.
"Do not in your mind equate "not guilty' with innocence. They are not the same," Downey told the defendants.
Said Kohler, "I agree with the judge completely. They should think about what they did for the rest of their lives. Just because they were found not guilty doesn't mean I think what they did was right.
"Next time," she said, "they should just keep on driving and not stop."