Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Crittenden guilty plea anticipated; three life sentences would follow

By Ron Bartlett

A man accused of killing three men after a night-long poker game is expected to plead guilty to murder charges today in a Palatka courtroom, an assistant state attorney said.

Duane Demaris Crittenden, 28, is charged with three counts of first-degree murder in the execution-style deaths of Richard Smith, Jerome Henry and Robert Ford. Their bodies were found after an apparent robbery early Feb. 16, which followed an overnight card game at the former Paradise Inn on Carver Street in Palatka.

According to reports, an agreement has been reached between Crittenden and prosecutors in which Crittenden will plead guilty to three counts of firstndegree murder.

A sentencing will follow in which Crittenden receives three consecutive life sentences — the only sentence allowed for each charge — thus avoiding the death penalty. Between the plea and sentencing, the families of Smith, Henry and Ford are expected to speak.

Assistant State Attorney Chris French, one of the lead attorneys working the case for the state, said the plea agreement should benefit everyone.

“Closure is certainly something you want to try to achieve for the victims,” he said. “The case against him is incredibly strong. You really just weigh whether you want to go through two years of litigation for the death penalty or you look for that closure.

“Generally ending the case at this point is what (the victims’ families) wanted.”

Prosecutors would have sought the death penalty if the case had gone to trial, French said, but added that would give more wiggle room for future appeals.

“This is more than just a bird in the hand,” he said. “This is huge because it limits the future appeals of the defendant.”

French said, in all death penalty cases, there is an automatic review by the Florida Supreme Court and every aspect of the trial is reviewed.

“In a plea, the only thing he can appeal is that his plea was entered without his consent or that he was misled about something,” he said. “The claims are very limited.”

The plea and sentencing will occur at 1:30 p.m. in the courtroom of Circuit Judge Ed Hedstrom

Crittenden was indicted by a grand jury on three counts of first-degree murder and one count of armed robbery March 3.

According to a report from the Putnam County Sheriff’s Office, Crittenden was a participant in the card game with the three victims and others during the night of Feb. 15.

The report said, after losing a large sum of money, Crittenden returned between 8:45 and 9 a.m. the next day to rob and kill the men. Their bodies were discovered about 10:30 a.m.

All three men had been shot, while Ford had also been stabbed.

Crittenden was found a day later, Feb. 17, after a tip to authorities led officers to the Town Plaza Motel in Ocala. He was located walking a short distance away and arrested.

A knife and gun believed to be the weapons used in the slayings were later found in an Ocala pharmacy’s trash bin.

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