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    Appeal overturns conviction in 1997 Largo killing

    The 2nd District Court of Appeal said prosecutors had relied on a legally inadequate theory. James J. Lyons had been sentenced to life in prison.


    © St. Petersburg Times, published May 12, 2001

    LARGO -- An appeals court on Friday reversed the murder conviction of a Largo man sentenced to life in 1999 for the killing of a friend during a dispute over money.

    Pinellas prosecutors said James J. Lyons killed Marlen Zengo in Largo in August 1997 while robbing him to pay off debts, though one of Lyons' attorneys said his client was defending himself in a fight.

    Lyons, 35, was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for the stabbing death of Zengo, 21.

    But the 2nd District Court of Appeal reversed Lyons' first-degree murder conviction and ordered a new trial because it said prosecutors had relied on a legally inadequate theory that Lyons was burglarizing Zengo's apartment.

    Lyons, calling from a hospital shortly after the attack, alerted Largo police to check on Zengo.

    When police arrived at the apartment Zengo shared with a girlfriend in the Shadow Lakes complex in Largo, they found Zengo's body on the living room floor, with cuts to the upper torso, head and neck. Zengo also had been strangled.

    Twelve hours later, Lyons, then 31, was arrested at the hospital in his hospital gown and taken to the Pinellas County Jail. Cuts on his fingers, wrist and arm had been bandaged.

    Relatives and friends said then that the two knew each other and that Zengo would often cover Lyons' expenses when they went out at night.

    Prosecutors said during the trial that a disagreement over money led to the struggle that killed Zengo. Lyons, they said, was behind in his rent, owed a couple of hundred dollars on a traffic ticket and had debts of $1,000 to $1,200.

    Prosecutors said Lyons attacked Zengo with a knife and then strangled him with a vacuum-cleaner cord.

    The appeals court said that it was undisputed that Lyons was initially invited into the apartment by Zengo.

    "Even so, the state contended that Lyons was guilty of burglary because Zengo must have withdrawn his consent to Lyons' presence in the residence when the two engaged in a fatal confrontation," the appeals court said.

    But the appeals court said that without a living witness who saw Zengo revoke his invitation, a burglary theory could not stand.

    Prosecutor Jim Hellickson said Lyons entered the apartment with the intent to attack Zengo, then steal money and other items from him, which he said clearly amounts to a burglary.

    He said state lawmakers recently passed legislation clearing up the legal point. He said prosecutors planned to ask the 2nd DCA to reconsider its decision.

    The point was important to the trial because the state argued that Lyons was guilty of felony first-degree murder, which is a killing committed during a violent felony such as a burglary.

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