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Assistant State Attorney Bob Antonello displays a .380 semiautomatic pistol in Bartow on Monday that he says Samuel Lee Pitts used to kill two cousins in 2000.
By Dana Willhoit
BARTOW - Samuel Lee Pitts, 27, stared ahead impassively as the verdict in his trial was read aloud Thursday afternoon: guilty of two counts of first-degree murder, kidnapping and robbery of cousins James Felker and David Green.
The State Attorney's Office will now seek the death penalty for Pitts, who had rejected a plea deal that called for a sentence of life in prison.
His co-defendant, Tavares Wright, has already been convicted and sentenced to death for the brutal killings seven years ago of the two young men who were kidnapped in Lakeland, taken to a grove and shot to death.
Family members of Felker and Green remained silent after the verdict was read, but grasped one another's hands.
Several of Pitts' family members, sitting in the back row of the Bartow courtroom, cried quietly.
"We've waited seven years and 19 days for this," said Ivy Scriven, David Green's mother. "My thing is that neither one of them will get out to hurt anybody else. I don't care what he gets as long as he doesn't get out."
Frances Dunn, James Felker's mother, said she'd be happy with a sentence of either death or life in prison, "but I prefer the death penalty."
"I just want it to be over with,'' she said. "Seven years is a long time."
Dennis Felker, James Felker's father, said, "I'll just accept what the jury chooses."
The jurors who convicted Pitts will meet again Tuesday to begin the penalty phase of his trial. They will decide whether to vote to recommend he receive the death penalty or a sentence of life in prison without parole. At least seven of the 12 jurors must agree for a death recommendation.
It is ultimately up to Circuit Judge Dick Prince to choose the sentence, but by law he must give great weight to the jury's recommendation.
The last person sentenced to death in Polk County was Thomas Rigterink, in October 2005, for the stabbing deaths of two people at a Winter Haven office complex in 2003. Rigterink was sentenced a few days after Wright received the death penalty.
On the night of April 21, 2000, a Friday, Felker, 18, and Green, 21, planned to go bowling together. Green had returned to Florida from Weston, Va., where he had moved with his fiancee, the mother of his child, and he planned to attend a family member's wedding on Saturday.
The two never came home. Green's Chrysler Cirrus, with traces of blood outside and inside, was found abandoned April 22.
Prosecutors said the cousins were most likely abducted at gunpoint from a Winn-Dixie parking lot on Lakeland's north side.
Wright was arrested for an unrelated crime April 23 and tried to get away from police. As he ran through a Lakeland apartment complex shoes slipped off his feet and were found by police. The shoes were found to have traces of Felker's blood on them.
Wright also tossed a stolen .380 semi-automatic handgun into a car, and the gun was recovered by police and found to be the weapon used to shoot Felker and Green.
Both men were shot with the .380 semi-automatic. Felker was also shot twice in the back of the head with a shotgun. The shotgun has never been found.
On April 24, Pitts pawned a bag of computer tools taken from Green's car. On April 26, detectives picked him up and questioned him, and he led them to the bodies of Green and Felker in an orange grove near Polk City.
Pitts insisted he went for a ride along with Wright, with the two victims in the back seat of the Cirrus, and that he had no idea anything was wrong until they were almost to the grove. He said he didn't see the guns Wright had at first, and he had no idea Wright was planning to kill the two young men.
However, prosecutors ridiculed his story, saying that there was no way one man, driving a car with his back turned on two men in the back seat, would have been able to control the two victims. They insisted Pitts must have been holding a gun on the victims as Wright drove.
About a dozen family members of Green and Felker came to court every day for the trial, as they had during all three of Wright's trials.
Wright had one mistrial and one hung jury before a third jury found him guilty in 2004. Judge Prince sentenced him to death on Oct. 12, 2005.
Jury selection was under way for Pitts in 2004 when Prince stopped the trial and ruled that a tape-recorded statement that Pitts made to sheriff's detectives should be kept from the jury. Prince said that Pitts had invoked his right to remain silent. The 2nd District Court of Appeal overturned that ruling.
Dana Willhoit can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 863-533-9079.