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Boy moves down road to recovery

Calls pour into the hospital to help the family of a Colombian boy whose face was rebuilt.


© St. Petersburg Times, published March 10, 2001

TAMPA -- John Esteban Martinez, the 7-year-old Colombian boy who suffered from a dangerous and disfiguring birth defect, continued recovering Friday after surgery to return much of his brain to his skull and reconstruct his face.

Officials at Tampa Children's Hospital at St. Joseph's said John remained in critical but stable condition in the intensive care unit. His surgeon, Dr. Mutaz Habal, said he had been given medication to paralyze his body, in order to keep him still.

His brain also has been partially dehydrated to allow room for post-operative swelling.

"For the difficult surgery he had, he's doing very well," hospital spokeswoman Joelle Wiley said.

John was born with midfacial cleft syndrome, a rare disorder in which his skull failed to form properly in the womb. Over the years, the left side of his brain squeezed through a fissure in his forehead, forming a large mass of brain -- covered only by skin -- over the left front quarter of his face.

On Thursday, Habal and Tampa neurosurgeon Dr. William Oliver DeWeese removed John's skull and put the brain back where it belonged, then rebuilt his skull. They also realigned his left eye, which was pushed out and down by the mass. The optic nerve remained intact, so the doctors are hopeful that he will be able to see from it.

In the United States, this disorder is usually fixed early, before it progresses.

Wiley said the hospital has been bombarded by calls from people who want to donate money or items to the Martinez family. Because they live in Colombia, they will be limited as to what they can take back, but the hospital has set up a fund for financial donations.

People who want to donate should make checks payable to the John Esteban Martinez Trust, care of AmSouth Bank Trust Department, P.O. Box 2918, Clearwater, FL, 33757-2918.

The hospital also suggested donating blood through Florida Blood Services in honor of John. For more information on donating blood, contact FBS at 1-800-682-5663. The doctors and the hospital donated their services for the surgery, which Tampa Children's administrator Mike Aubin valued Friday at well more than $100,000.

He and the boy's parents, Luz Dary Zuluaga and John Jairo Martinez of Medellin, Colombia, had a tearful meeting Friday in which the parents thanked Aubin for providing the surgery. They told him they never could have afforded it themselves.

Recent coverage

Surgeon3/8s hands restore a face and a boy3/8s life (March 9, 2001)

Surgery offers Colombian boy hope for normal life (March 8, 2001)

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Paper: + Date: 3/10/01 +

Page: 3B Section: HILLSBOROUGH +



TAMPA -- As his defense attorney made closing arguments in his double murder trial, James Charles Acker knew something was wrong

As soon as the jury began deliberating, Acker told the trial judge that his lawyer had not effectively argued his case. The lawyer, Simson Unterberger, did not ask the jury to find Acker not guilty. He even placed Acker at the scene of the crime.

Circuit Judge Robert J. Simms told Acker he could raise the issue on appeal.

He did, and 10 years later a state appeals court has agreed with him. The Lakeland-based 2nd District Court of Appeal overturned Acker's conviction Friday and ordered a new trial in the murder of two men at the Cambridge Woods Apartments near the University of South Florida in 1991.

"After 10 years, he will finally have a fair trial," said James Felman, Acker's new attorney.

The court's opinion describes how Acker's first attorney bungled his defense from the beginning. In his opening statement, Unterberger told the jury that "there's certainly some evidence" that Acker was at the murder scene.

Witnesses said they saw three men leave the Cambridge Woods Apartments on the night that Brandon Snider and Robert Carter were killed inside their apartment in 1991. Snider was stabbed 14 times and his throat was cut; Carter was shot six times after he begged for his life and tried to hide in an upstairs bedroom.

One of the three men was Patrick Hannon, 26, a mason who was found guilty of the double murder and sentenced to death. The second man, Ronald Richardson, 47, who worked in a Brooksville slaughterhouse, became the state's star witness in exchange for a reduced charge of accessory after the fact. He served a five-year prison term.

Richardson became the state's only witness putting Acker, at the time a 27-year-old billiards repair man, at the murder scene. No physical evidence placed Acker at the crime scene, the court said.

Acker's lawyer failed to bring up a compelling defense: that Richardson was pinning the crime on Acker to protect Richardon's brother.

Richardson's brother owned the gun used in the crime and owned the car used to drive from the scene. "Counsel never suggested that Ron Richardson may have been covering up for his brother," the court wrote.

Instead, Acker's lawyer acknowledged that Acker had been at the crime scene. He also called two witnesses for the defense that eliminated Richardson's brother as a possible suspect. Calling the two witnesses was not a reasonable strategy, the court concluded.

Unterberger has retired and is living in Colorado. His wife said he was busy and could not come to the phone Friday.

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