Friday, January 18, 2008

Defense Questions Truth Of Romeo Trial Witness

Edward Romeo, 30, in Circuit Judge Michael Hunter's courtroom in Bartow. Romeo is standing trial on charges of killing Rachael Martina and burying her in his back yard. The State Attorney's Office is seeking the death penalty.

By Dana Willhoit
The Ledger

BARTOW A defense lawyer hammered away at the state's main witness in the Edward Romeo murder trial Tuesday, accusing Ashley Wilson of falsely blaming Romeo for the murder of a teenage runaway.

Wilson testified that in 1999 Edward Romeo told her he was going to kill Rachael Martina, and a short time later she saw the teen's body on the floor of the Romeo home. She told jurors Romeo and his younger brother, Robert, put Martina's body in a bag and carried it outside.

The skeletal remains of the 16-year-old Lakeland girl weren't found until 2004, when some of the young people who knew the Romeos told investigators that a teenager had been killed.

Wilson's testimony is crucial for prosecutors who are trying to convict Edward Romeo of first-degree murder. They plan to seek the death penalty if he is convicted.

Defense lawyer Bob Norgard attacked Wilson's credibility and motives.

He pointed out she didn't tell authorities about the death for nearly five years and that she had reason to want to implicate Edward Romeo - she was a friend of his brother, Robert, who was shot to death by Edward Romeo in 2004.

Edward Romeo was convicted of his brother's killing and sentenced to 25 years in prison.

On Tuesday, jurors were given an account of the death of Martina, a teen with a troubled life who turned to the Romeos for a place to stay.

Martina was last seen alive in May 1999. She frequently went to the North Lakeland home of the Romeo family, where Edward lived with his younger brothers, Robert and Doug. The three brothers were usually unsupervised because their mother was at their sister's house helping with a new baby, and teenagers frequently came to the house, Assistant State Attorney Paul Wallace told jurors.

Wilson was close friends with the two younger brothers. She testified Tuesday morning that she skipped school more often than not in 1999, and frequently stayed at the Romeo house. She was 13 at the time.

Sometime in 1999 - she thinks it was in May, because she recalled that the school year was about to end - she went to the house one afternoon. Edward showed her a brown rawhide rope and told her that he was going to put it around Martina's neck, Wilson told jurors.

"I just kind of blew it off, like he was just talking," Wilson said.

A little while later, Wilson said, Martina came into the house and hugged Edward.

Wilson testified she went upstairs with Robert, and a short while later Edward came up and gave her a necklace that Wilson had seen Martina wearing. Edward told Wilson and his brother Robert to come downstairs.

There they saw Martina's body sprawled on the floor, Wilson said. She said that Edward told her that Martina let him put the rope around her neck without a struggle, and then he tightened it. Edward and Robert put Martina's body in a black bag with a zipper, and they carried her outside, she said.

Wilson testified she was afraid of Edward Romeo and laid on a couch all night without sleeping, with a knife by her side.

She acknowledged she never called police nor told anyone other than one friend about the killing.

That changed in 2004, after Edward Romeo was arrested for the fatal shooting of his brother. Witnesses came forward and told Polk sheriff's investigators that Edward had bragged about killing Martina and they said Ashley Wilson knew about it.

Only then, when Wilson knew that Romeo was in jail and couldn't come find her, did she tell investigators what happened, she testified.

Norgard sharply questioned her, pointing out that she was close friends with Robert Romeo but not with Edward.

"The person who you claim killed Rachael Martina is a person who killed a friend of yours," Norgard said. "It wasn't until that happened that you told anyone anything bad about Eddie."

Norgard suggested that Robert Romeo was the one who killed Martina, and Wilson was covering for him until he was killed.

"Doesn't it make sense that you'd cover up for someone you didn't like, and not somebody you did like?" Norgard said.

"No," Wilson said.

Romeo's trial is scheduled to run through Jan. 25. Testimony is expected to resume today, in Circuit Judge J. Michael Hunter's courtroom.

[ Dana Willhoit can be reached at or 863-533-9079. ]

No comments: