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    Man gets life sentence in stabbing

    The judge had no choice for leniency in the case because of the defendant's past record.

    By BILL COATS

    © St. Petersburg Times, published December 20, 2000


    TAMPA -- Michael Fuqua was sentenced Tuesday to life in prison, capping perhaps the debate over what really happened in a videotaped fight in Ybor City.

    A jury had convicted Fuqua, 24, on Election Day of second-degree murder, after seeing the videotape and hearing conflicting testimony that Fuqua stabbed 22-year-old Jeremiah "Jeff" Kleiss. Before Tuesday's sentencing, Fuqua's attorneys mounted an elaborate effort to convince Circuit Judge Robert Simms that the tape, shot by a New York college student, didn't show Fuqua stabbing Kleiss, an airman based in Charleston, S.C.

    Shortly after the killing in March, portions of the tape were broadcast on local television, showing Fuqua and a friend running away, as Kleiss reacted to his stab wound. Callers quickly identified Fuqua.

    In his final arguments to jurors, prosecutor Jim Shoemaker had played an enlargement of a segment of the tape. It showed Kleiss and Fuqua facing off. Then Fuqua appeared to reach into his pocket, make a knife-opening motion with his hands, then dart past Kleiss. No knife or contact could be seen, but Kleiss promptly began looking at his bleeding left side.

    Assistant Public Defender Samantha Ward rebutted that on Tuesday with a display of more than 50 color photos from the videotape. She said they showed that Kleiss already was bleeding before Fuqua moved past him. And they showed Fuqua was roughly a car's width away from Kleiss when he began running, Ward argued.

    "At no point in time during this series of frames does Mr. Fuqua get close enough for anything to occur," she said.

    Judge Simms, his courtroom silent, moved from easel to easel and peered at the photos. Then he denied Ward's motion for an acquittal or new trial.

    "It could be a shadow. It could be blood," he told Ward. "That's purely an opinion on your part and not evidence that it's blood."

    Simms said Fuqua's conviction didn't contradict the evidence, and jurors apparently found prosecution witnesses more credible.

    Kleiss' relatives described his buoyant nature, and the nightmare of losing him.

    Fuqua's mother called him "a good boy." That had little impact. Because Fuqua had been released from prison nine months earlier, Simms was required to sentence him to life, with no parole or early release.

    "The Legislature has bound this court's hand," complained Ward. "There is no option other than to sentence this defendant to life."

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