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Suspect's race is a key issue in murder trial

A white man is on trial, but a black witness told investigators he saw a black killer.

By BILL COATS

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 3, 2000


TAMPA -- A murder trial stemming from an Ybor City bar fight focused on its opening day on whether the killer was black or white.

A white man, Mike Fuqua of Lutz, is charged with second-degree murder, based chiefly on a videotape and statements from Fuqua's white friends.

But in one of the investigation's most vivid interviews, a black bouncer at the bar described a black killer.

That should have been the key to the case, Fuqua's public defender told an all-white jury Thursday in opening statements.

The fatal stabbing of Air Force airman Jeremiah "Jeff" Kleiss was a tragedy, said the attorney, Samantha Ward. But, she added, "It's a tragedy that the (Tampa Police Department) made the mistakes that they did, and a white defendant is sitting in this courtroom today."

The murder investigation became more public on March 16, two days after Kleiss' death.

Police gave local media copies of a videotape shot by a visiting college student outside the Blues Ship Cafe. It showed two men running down Seventh Avenue, and Kleiss in the street reacting to his wound.

A caller quickly identified the runners as Fuqua and a pal from Lutz.

Prosecutor Jim Shoemaker told jurors the videotape will show a confrontation between Fuqua and Kleiss moments after the 22-year-old victim had been stabbed.

"You will see him approaching this man, right here," Shoemaker said, pointing to Fuqua in the courtroom, "Michael Fuqua, no one else, like "Come on.' "

The tape shows Fuqua reaching to his pocket, then running.

"You will see no one else running," Shoemaker said.

Investigators found no knife, nor anybody who said they saw Fuqua, 24, stab Kleiss.

But two of Fuqua's friends in Lutz said he told them he did it. One of those described Fuqua hiding the shirt he wore and burning the car that brought him back to Lutz. They are likely to testify for the prosecution.

Public Defender Julianne Holt urged Circuit Judge Robert Simms to block the testimony of one of the two, an ex-girlfriend of Fuqua, because she surfaced as a witness only a week ago. Simms has not ruled.

Holt said she was trying the case personally because of intriguing details such as the account of the bouncer, Mark James, who said the stabber was black.

Three carloads of African-American bar patrons were detained by police shortly after the stabbing, and James identified one as the stabber.

In response, all 10 prosecution witnesses Thursday were bar patrons.

Their testimony generally agreed that a brawl inside the Blues Ship involved only blacks. Kleiss' altercation outside the bar occurred against two white men and one black, they said. None said they saw a black person with a knife.

Jennifer Orzel, a 20-year-old college student from Kansas City, said she saw Kleiss' stabbing but not the stabber.

"I saw the hand with the blade going into his chest," she said. "I remember him moving toward the attacker."

Questioned about the attacker's race, Orzel said, "I remember it being lighter skin, obviously not black."

-- Bill Coats can be reached at (813) 226-3469 or coats@sptimes.com.

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