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    19-year-old convicted of store robbery, slaying

    He faces a life sentence for the shooting death of the owner of an Ybor City convenience store.

    By DAVID KARP

    © St. Petersburg Times, published March 10, 2001


    TAMPA -- After deliberating for an hour Friday, a jury found 19-year-old Derek T. Holmes guilty of robbing an Ybor City convenience store and shooting its owner to death.

    Holmes, known as "O.D.," was convicted of killing Muhammad Naeem Akhtar, a 37-year-old father of three young children who came to the United States from Pakistan.

    The shooting happened about 11 p.m. July 3 at the Columbus Food Mart, which had been plagued by robberies. Holmes was arrested several days later when police found him in a friend's house, hiding under a pile of clothes in a closet.

    The first-degree murder conviction means Holmes faces a mandatory sentence of life in prison. Circuit Judge Ronald Ficarrotta will sentence Holmes on Wednesday.

    "We have two tragedies here," prosecutor Richard Leal said after the verdict. "We have a man dead, leaving three children and a wife, and we have a man who, if society is fortunate, will never see the light of day again."

    "But in this case," Leal added, "justice was done."

    One of the key pieces of evidence against Holmes was a fingerprint left on a cold carton of milk on the convenience store's counter. Police also found ripped camouflage Army pants they said belonged to Holmes and that matched a ripped piece of camouflage cloth found wrapped around the murder weapon, a semiautomatic handgun.

    Five witnesses said they recognized Holmes as the man who held up the convenience store, although some were not absolutely sure.

    Holmes' attorney, Assistant Public Defender Ken Littman, hammered away at some of the eyewitnesses' doubts. He argued that Holmes' fingerprint on the milk carton did not mean he was in the store during the robbery.

    Holmes, a regular customer at the Columbus Food Mart, might have touched the cold milk before the robbery. Then someone else could have taken the milk out of the refrigerator.

    "The death of Muhammad Akhtar was a tragedy," Littman told the jurors. "Don't compound that tragedy by convicting an innocent man."

    Leal, the prosecutor, argued that the jury had plenty of evidence, including that Holmes told detectives he had accidentally shot Akhtar.

    Holmes later denied making a confession, which wasn't taped.

    "Everyone in this case was wrong except Mr. Holmes," Leal sarcastically told the jury. "He wants you to ignore the evidence because there is so much of it."

    - Times staff writer David Karp can be reached at (813) 226-3376 or karp@sptimes.com.

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