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Tiny eyes pierce a cop's defenses


© St. Petersburg Times, published September 27, 2001

Anyone who knows Hillsborough sheriff's Cpl. Mike Conigliaro can attest he's a devoted family man, with two teenage daughters who are the apples of his eye.

Anyone who knows Hillsborough sheriff's Cpl. Mike Conigliaro can attest he's a devoted family man, with two teenage daughters who are the apples of his eye.

Still, he tried to shut off that part of himself Saturday. A murder suspect had confessed to kidnapping, raping and strangling a 9-month-old girl, and it was the job of Conigliaro, a homicide detective, and K-9 Deputy Woody Wright to search the woods where the man said he left the body.

"We were preparing ourselves psychologically to find a deceased baby," he recalled. "I put my defense mechanisms in place to deal with an image that would haunt me the rest of my life."

In seconds that mind-set changed. A faint noise and a tiny raised hand from a pile of brush indicated the baby might still be alive.

As Conigliaro knelt next to her, all the questions of his police medic training ran through his mind: Is she breathing? Is there a pulse? Does she have spinal injuries?

Then he swept the debris off the baby's face. They locked eyes, and as he had countless times with his own daughters when they were babies, Conigliaro responded.

"In my heart, as a dad, I said, pick her up and love her because that's what she needs."

He scooped her up and held the baby to his chest. "She clung like Velcro," he recalled.

She didn't let go until paramedics arrived and flew her to Tampa General Hospital, where she is in stable condition.

Conigliaro has not visited the baby since finding her. "I've purposefully stayed away, because my part in this case is over," he said, and he didn't want to create any publicity.

"I didn't do anything heroic," he said. "It's just somebody's prayers were answered."

Still, the 14-year veteran now has an answer for the moments when, weary with death, he wonders, "Why do I do this job?"

Gazing into the baby's eyes, he said, "was the single most inspiring moment of my career."

NOT TOO SHABBY: As his first-degree murder trial began Monday, Ernest Spann told the judge that he wanted to fire his attorney. A convicted felon with an 11th-grade education, Spann insisted on representing himself.

"That would be suicide," Circuit Judge J. Rogers Padgett told him.

Spann's attorney, Assistant Public Defender Harvey Hyman, got Spann a hung jury earlier this year in his first trial. "This is one of the best criminal defense lawyers in Tampa," Padgett told Spann. "He got you a hung jury. What do you want -- an acquittal?"

"Yeah," Spann replied, "I want an acquittal."

As it turned out, Spann represented himself pretty well. The jury came back Wednesday -- hung again.

"He didn't do half bad," said Hyman, who came into the case at the end to deliver closing arguments.

Prosecutors must now decide whether to try Spann a third time in the 1991 murder of Brenda McKenzie, 35, who was found dead in her College Hill home.

The jury foreman said it wasn't so much Spann's legal skills, as it was the lack of a good solid case against him. The Tampa police detective who spoke to Spann about his involvement in the crime didn't tape the conversation or take notes.

"It was sloppy detective work," the jury foreman said.

JUST PASSING THROUGH: It didn't look good when court administrators hired Circuit Judge James Arnold's son for a courthouse job in May. More experienced lawyers applied for the $38,500-a-year job as the attorney for the court guardian ad litem program. But James Arnold Jr., who was admitted to the Bar in April, got the post.

But rather than stick around for a while to show his appreciation, he's resigned to work for a private law firm.

"It was something we didn't expect," Court Administrator Michael Bridenback said. "We have a vacancy, and we have a large case load. It creates work load problems for us."

The job will now be posted again.

JUDGE FINALISTS ARE ...: The Judicial Nominating Commission met this week to decide who should be considered for two new judgeships funded by the Legislature. The commission will send Gov. Jeb Bush 12 names today; Bush now has 60 days to pick the new judges.

The finalists for the Circuit Court seat are: Emmett Lamar Battles; Charles Bergmann; John Conrad; Matthew Mudano; Richard Zabak; and Warren Zimmerman.

The finalists for the County Court seat are: Battles; Conrad; Mudano; J. Kevin Carey; Paul Huey; and Art McNeil.

But before the candidates get too excited, they might want to make sure the new judgeships will be around. Bush has called a special session to deal with a downturn in the economy, and legislative leaders told state Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Wells to trim the budget by 5 percent.

That could mean cuts to the new judgeships.

- Got a tip? Times staff writer Amy Herdy is (813)226-3386 or herdy@sptimes.com, and David Karp is at (813) 226-3376 or karp@sptimes.com.

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