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Plea deal gives man 30-year sentence

[Times photo: Cherie Diez]
Malarie Stubbins says goodbye to his 3-year-old daughter, Laneka, and his mother, Furneeta Jackson, after his hearing Monday morning.

By WILLIAM R. LEVESQUE

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 25, 2000


LARGO -- Malarie L. Stubbins took his daughter, Laneka, from his mother's arms and hugged the 3-year-old tightly as a white teddy bear dangled from the child's hand.

With teary eyes, he looked into her face and softly spoke his private goodbye. Stubbins' mother bowed her head in anguish, unable to watch.

In the courtroom Monday, bailiffs watched the scene closely. In a different city at a different time, Stubbins held another child about the same age in his hands. Stubbins, prosecutors say, didn't whisper loving words into that child's ears.

Instead, they said he savagely beat her for soiling herself.

Just moments before he hugged Laneka goodbye, Stubbins avoided a possible death sentence by pleading guilty to a reduced charge of second-degree murder for the February 1998 fatal beating of Laneka's half sister, 3-year-old Claryssa Carter.

In the plea agreement with prosecutors, Stubbins, 26, was sentenced to 30 years in prison by Pinellas Circuit Judge Brandt Downey III.

Prosecutors declined to say specifically why they offered the plea on the day that Stubbins' trial on a first-degree murder charge was to have opened. But defense lawyers speculated that it may have had something to do with the character of several state witnesses.

Stubbins, prosecutors said, confided to several jailhouse snitches that he killed the girl. And those snitches would have been key witnesses for the prosecution.

Nobody saw Stubbins beating Claryssa.

Defense lawyer Michael Schwartzberg said prosecutors may have been worried about providing testimony from snitches, always a worrisome and uncertain prospect at trial for any prosecutor.

"All of that goes into a decision on a plea," said Pinellas prosecutor Tim Hessinger, one of State Attorney Bernie McCabe's top prosecutors in child death cases. "We weigh many factors when making these decisions."

Schwartzberg said his client reluctantly accepted the plea.

"I think he did what he felt was in his and everybody else's best interest," the St. Petersburg attorney said. "If he had been convicted at trial, it was either life or death. And a life sentence meant he would never see his own child again."

Hessinger said that Claryssa soiled herself one day two years ago as Stubbins watched the girl while Claryssa's mother, Patricia Berry, was away at work.

The couple shared a St. Petersburg apartment.

The prosecutor said Stubbins became angry and told the girl to clean herself. The 3-year-old tried. But after she didn't clean herself to Stubbins' satisfaction, Stubbins hit her several times in the abdomen, Hessinger said.

Claryssa suffered internal bleeding. As her stomach swelled, Stubbins called 911. The girl died the same day during surgery.

Defense lawyers were prepared to argue that injuries in the child were inflicted by accident. Stubbins, they said, had no intent to harm the girl, who was not his daughter.

Claryssa's mother, who is also the mother of Stubbins' daughter, Laneka, did not attend Stubbins' plea and could not be reached for comment.

Prosecutors were prepared to introduce evidence that Stubbins had beaten the girl several times before he beat her to death. Doctors testified before the trial day about evidence of three broken ribs suffered by the girl from two previous beatings.

Another time, the girl suffered a broken leg. Stubbins later explained, prosecutors said, that the girl fell at the playground.

But prosecutors said he took her to the playground only after he injured her.

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