Saturday, December 8, 2007

New trial in 'stand your ground' test case

James Behanna should be freed on bail before a retrial, the appeals court said.

A man convicted of manslaughter will get another chance to argue he acted in self-defense.

By COLLEEN JENKINS, Times Staff Writer
Published December 8, 2007


TAMPA - The first Hillsborough County case to test Florida's "stand your ground" law ended last year with a manslaughter conviction and 15-year prison sentence for James Behanna.

But Friday, exactly two years after Behanna fatally stabbed 21-year-old Robert Mears Jr., an appellate court granted the Tampa paralegal a new trial.

Hillsborough Circuit Judge Daniel Sleet "abused his discretion" by refusing to allow jurors to hear evidence that bolstered Behanna's self-defense argument, a 2nd District Court of Appeal panel said.

Behanna, 38, will ask Sleet on Monday to release him from prison as he awaits his next trial, said James Felman, his appellate attorney.

His chances seem good. The 2nd DCA, after finding recently that Behanna had significant grounds for appeal, ordered the circuit court to hold a hearing and grant a reasonable bail.

"We're just very hopeful," said Behanna's wife, attorney Aida Rodriguez.

On Dec. 7, 2005, Mears trespassed onto Rodriguez's law office property on N Florida Avenue, where Behanna worked as a paralegal. During his October 2006 trial, Behanna recalled how Mears screamed and had a "real wild-eyed" look.

Behanna went outside, carrying a small shovel, and asked Mears to leave. Mears, who was intoxicated according to a forensic toxicologist, threw Behanna to the ground.

After more tussling, Mears walked about 150 feet off the property. At trial, prosecutors said Behanna should have gone into the office for safety. Instead, he followed Mears in an attempt to detain him for police.

The crux of the criminal case against Behanna revolved around what happened next. The defendant said Mears grabbed him by the throat and threatened to kill him. But one witness for the prosecution said Mears only pushed Behanna back.

Behanna, known by friends as MacGyver because he carried a pocketknife, pulled out his knife and stabbed Mears twice.

Jurors could have acquitted Behanna under the "stand your ground" law, which allows people to meet force with force when they feel threatened.

But the jury didn't know that Mears had badly beaten his roommate and a woman immediately before heading to the law office. The roommate was described as having been "pulverized."

Appellate judges said Sleet should have admitted the "inextricably intertwined" evidence because it showed Mears' state of mind and explained his aggression toward Behanna. Prosecutors exacerbated the error, the appeals panel wrote, by describing Mears as just a kid who was "having a bad day."

"For Behanna to have a fair trial on his self-defense claim under the circumstances here, he is entitled to have the jury know that Mears had been engaged in a violent encounter with two people just minutes earlier," the opinion stated.

News of the reversal Friday was welcomed by Behanna's trial attorney, Ronald Cacciatore.

"It's nice to be right," he said.

Colleen Jenkins can be reached at or (813) 226-3337.


ann said...

This case is one that never should have went to trial. It only shows what injustice there is in our court system. The prosecutor lied to the jury while the defense attorney and the judge sat by and did nothing. In this country every person is supposed to recieve a fair trial and it is a fact that this man did not. He was only trying to protect his wife, a coworker and himself from a criminal. Because of the lies to the jury by the proecutor James missed the birth of his son and the first few months of his life. Nothing can make up for that loss. James and his family have been put through hell this past fifteen months and it looks as if this will continue. Even though there have been several cases in the news since James's trial with other citizens protecting themselves and their property none have been charged. There seems to be a lot of prejudice going on in the prosecutor's office. I think it's time to leave the hard working, tax paying, law abidding citizens alone and go after the real criminals. Stop wasting our tax dollars just because someone wants to make a name for themself. Give it a break and listen to the higher court. After all, It's job is to make sure the lower courts follow the law.

Anonymous said...

Fuck you lady who said it shouldn't have gone to trial .. THAT WAS MY FRIEND WHO GOT KILLED!!
You have no fucking right to come on here and say some shit like that.
Were you there?. NO
Did you know him?. NO
So shut the fuck up, 4real .
That fuckin COWARD James Behanna ran up from behind Rob (RIP), jumped on his back, and stabbed him in the heart twice..
Self defense??.. Fuck outa here wit dat shit!!