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Deal for plea dismays state

Prosecutors tell the judge they're trying to tie the kidnapper to three murders. It does no good.

By WILLIAM R. LEVESQUE

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 29, 2000


LARGO -- After the judge decided to sentence James Greenfield to the minimum prison term allowed by law for kidnapping a St. Petersburg woman, prosecutor Bob Lewis put all his cards on the table.

He wasn't sure Circuit Judge Brandt Downey III knew everything about Greenfield. So as Lewis sought a longer sentence, he told Downey what prosecutors have suspected for the past three years.

Greenfield is the prime suspect in three prostitute murders in Pinellas County.

Downey on Tuesday nonetheless offered this deal to Greenfield: If he pleaded guilty to kidnapping a prostitute, the judge would sentence him to about six years in prison rather than the maximum 10 1/2 years he faced.

Greenfield, 35, accepted the offer on the day his trial was to have begun.

"It's just not fair," said Yvonda Johnson, the woman Greenfield pleaded guilty to kidnapping. "I didn't deserve what he did to me. I didn't deserve to be tied up."

Greenfield was convicted by a jury in 1997 of kidnapping Johnson. But an appeals court overturned the conviction last year, ordering a new trial. The court ruled the judge who presided at that trial, Lauren Laughlin, improperly gave the jury a dictionary to look up the word "terrorize" on a set of instructions from the court.

Only the judge, not a dictionary, can provide legal definitions to jurors, the appeals court ruled.

Laughlin had sentenced Greenfield to 10 1/2 years in prison. The new sentence by Downey means that Greenfield, who receives credit for time he has served since the conviction, will be released from prison in 2002.

Prosecutors have struggled to build a murder case against Greenfield. But as long as he was safely in prison on the kidnapping charge, they had time to find new evidence linking him to the slayings.

"There is some evidence the defendant participated in those murders," Lewis told Downey, explaining why prosecutors sought a stiffer sentence. "Once he was put in jail, the prostitute murders ceased."

Lewis declined to discuss the evidence.

But defense attorney Don O'Leary bristled at prosecutors bringing up information about uncharged murders to get Greenfield a longer sentence.

"There is no evidence at all" linking Greenfield to the slayings, O'Leary told Downey. "They're talking about suspicions."

To be sure, a conviction of Greenfield on the kidnapping charge wasn't a sure thing. Defense attorneys have pointed to a lack of physical evidence and Johnson's less-than-stellar background, including a former cocaine addiction.

Downey did not say why he offered the deal to Greenfield, and the judge could not be reached afterward.

While little is known about the evidence prosecutors have linking Greenfield to the slayings, Johnson's abduction is perhaps the most obvious link.

Johnson told police that Greenfield in July 1995 picked her up in his car while she was working as a prostitute near 22nd Avenue S and Fourth Street S.

She said Greenfield locked the door and ordered her to undress, so she took off everything but her shoes. She said he took her to a house in the vicinity of Third Street S and tied her up in the bedroom. But when he left for a few minutes, she said, she freed herself, grabbed her clothes and fled.

During the encounter, prosecutors said, Greenfield choked Johnson and threatened to kill her. Defense lawyers, however, say the pair had consensual sex.

Johnson's abduction in July 1995 came between the discovery of the second and third prostitute bodies.

The first of three slain prostitutes was Doris Katherine Nelson, 27, a mentally handicapped woman whose body was found May 7, 1995, in a trash bin on Belcher Road.

Then, in July, Emily Cummings' body was discovered in an alley by a landscaper working at the home of former St. Petersburg City Council member Ron Mason. A month later the body of Zelda Pierce, 31, was found in a trash bin in the 1100 block of 24th Avenue N.

Investigators learned that Greenfield's car was towed to a St. Petersburg garage from the Old Northeast neighborhood where one of the slain woman's bodies was found in a trash bin.

In the car was a strong odor, say the mechanics who worked on the car. When Greenfield was asked about the smell, he told the mechanics that a cat accidentally had been locked inside and died.

O'Leary, Greenfield's lawyer, said prosecutors were reaching to brand his client a killer.

"It's nothing more than suspicion and inference," he said.

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