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Murderer won't get a new trial

Robert Garner says his lawyers failed to use an intoxication defense. They say he never mentioned drugs or alcohol.

By CARY DAVIS

© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 21, 2001


NEW PORT RICHEY -- A man serving two life sentences for his role in the 1992 murder of a Hudson retiree and her son does not deserve a new trial, a judge ruled Wednesday.

Robert D. Garner, 27, appealed his 1994 conviction for first-degree murder on the grounds that his attorneys were ineffective. Garner testified at a hearing in December that his attorneys failed to use an intoxication defense at his 1994 trial, even though he said he told them he had smoked four rocks of crack cocaine and consumed 12 to 18 beers in the hours leading up to the murders.

Garner did not dispute his role in the murders of Madeline Weisser, 75, and her son, John Bowers, 55. But his appellate attorney, Keith Hammond, said jurors might have opted for a lesser charge if they had known Garner was under the influence of cocaine and alcohol.

Circuit Judge William Webb, in a four-page order, wrote that there was no credible evidence that Garner ever said anything to his lawyers, Sam Williams and Rob Hoskins, about drug or alcohol use. Both lawyers testified in December that Garner never mentioned drugs or alcohol in pretrial conversations with them.

Garner also didn't say anything about smoking crack or drinking beer in a detailed confession to a Pasco sheriff's detective or in conversations with a psychologist hired by the defense to evaluate him before trial.

"It is particularly significant to note that (the psychologist) was allowing the defendant to tell him anything that would mitigate his actions in this double murder, and even with that opportunity, (Garner) did not advise of substance use," the judge wrote.

The chilling execution-style murders of Weisser and Bowers won't soon be forgotten.

Weisser and Bowers died in their Sanderling Lane home on Jan. 27, 1992, about a week after Garner, then 17, and several friends started talking about breaking into the house, robbing it and killing anyone inside.

Alvin Morton, then 19 and the ringleader, shot Bowers in the head as he tried to protect his mother. Weisser was stabbed in the neck eight times, her head nearly decapitated. Morton told police that Garner jumped on the knife to force it through her spinal column. A third suspect, 14-year-old Tim Kane, watched in horror from a corner.

Before leaving, Morton cut off Bowers' little finger as a souvenir of the grisly murder. Then the teens set fire to the house to try to cover up evidence of the crime.

Garner is serving two consecutive life sentences with no possibility of parole for 50 years.

Morton is on death row. Kane received a life sentence with no possibility of parole for 25 years.

A fourth teenager, Chris Walker, who kicked in the door but did not go inside, was sentenced to 20 years in prison for being an accessory to murder and conspiracy to commit armed robbery.

A state appeals court rejected Garner's first challenge of his conviction and sentence.

Hammond, Garner's current attorney, said Webb's ruling will be appealed to the 2nd District Court of Appeal in Lakeland.

"But at this point," Hammond said, "it's doubtful it will be successful."

- Cary Davis covers courts in west Pasco County. He can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6236 or toll-free at (800) 333-7505, ext. 6236.

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