Former Navy sailor Matthew Castro was sentenced to life in prison for murdering an 18-year-old Lance Ulland. He is shown here at his first court appearance in March 2007. (BARBARA V. PEREZ, ORLANDO SENTINEL / March 19, 2007)
Sentinel Staff Writer
May 3, 2008
Matthew Castro, a 29-year-old former Navy sailor, was sent to prison for the rest of life Friday for hunting down a drug dealer who wronged him, but murdering an innocent 18-year-old Spring Break visitor instead.
The Jacksonville man was found guilty of last year's killing of Lance Ulland, a Minnesota man who died after answering Castro's knock on his Daytona Beach motel door.
A Volusia jury took just an hour to convict Castro of first-degree premeditated murder, which carries the mandatory penalty of life in prison without the possibility of parole. Circuit Judge Frank Marriott sentenced Castro shortly after the jurors left, a few of whom cried and hugged Ulland's cousins as they walked out of the courtroom.
Afterward, Ulland's and Castro's families met outside, crying and hugging, for a moment of healing.
"We sympathize with his family," said Ulland's cousin, Stevi Smith, formerly of Orlando. "We have nothing against them at all."
Castro's family didn't speak to reporters, but Assistant Public Defender Jim Valerino said he was shocked at the verdict.
"We're very disappointed," Valerino said. "I don't believe my client intended to kill anybody."
Castro took the stand during his weeklong trial and admitted to the shooting, but said it was an accident that Ulland died at the Atlantic Economy Inn on State Road A1A on March 18, 2007.
Ulland had been in Florida for less than a day before heading to Daytona's Spring Break with Smith, her brother and other friends. It was his first time seeing the Atlantic Ocean and Ulland's group enjoyed the sights -- the Boardwalk, a car show and the beach.
That same weekend, Castro, who had recently finished a six-year stint with the Navy, spent Spring Break with his buddy. It was at the same motel where Ulland stayed that Castro met someone and bought a $50 bag of drugs, discovering later that the so-called cocaine was actually salt.
During closing arguments, Assistant State Attorney Leah Case said Castro's actions after the drug deal show he had a premeditated intent to kill.
She reminded jurors how Castro went back to his own room to get his .45-caliber gun. Then at 3:30 a.m., Castro knocked on several doors at the motel, trying to find the man who wronged him, she said.
Finally, Castro reached Ulland's room, where he asked Ulland whether he was the guy he met in the parking lot earlier, according to witnesses. Then Castro fired at Ulland.
"He's not two feet from the victim. He's not six inches. He's not 1 millimeter from the victim," Case said during closing arguments. "He has that gun pressed into the victim's face, into the victim's eye, when he fired that weapon."
Valerino tried to argue that the shooting was an accident. The defense's version was that as he faced Ulland and held the weapon, that there was an "involuntary muscle contraction" that caused Castro to fire.
Jurors apparently didn't think it was an accident and instead grappled with the fact that Ulland was not the intended target.
About 20 minutes into deliberations, they asked the judge about the definition of premeditated murder. The jury asked whether the intent to kill was enough to call it premeditated, or whether it had to involve a specific person.
That question made it clear to Valerino and Castro that the first-degree murder conviction was imminent.
Ludmilla Lelis can be reached at 386-253-0964 or firstname.lastname@example.org.