Police deny drinking with suspect
BY KEYONNA SUMMERS
Circuit Judge Meryl Allawas recused herself from a murder case Wednesday because she is the godmother of the lead detective's children.
Allawas made the disclosure during the hearing on a defense motion to throw out the confession of Michael Lilja, a homeless man accused of killing his companion, 56-year-old Robert Stephen Ault, last year in a dispute over body odor.
The judge said she usually sees Brevard County Sheriff's Office Sgt. Gary Harrell's children with their mother, has minimal contact with Harrell and would be impartial.
But she granted the defendant's ensuing recusal request to avoid the perception of bias.
The case will be reassigned to a different judge.
The defendant should "feel he is getting a judge that has no relationship at all" to the witnesses, Allawas said.
Lilja, 45, faces life in prison if convicted of second-degree murder in connection with Ault's death.
Police said a boater found Ault's body floating in Sykes Creek near the Beachline Expressway on Merritt Island on July 26, 2007, near the campsite where the two men lived.
An autopsy showed Ault died of multiple blunt-force trauma and strangulation, authorities said.
Defense attorney Todd Deratany claims investigators illegally detained and questioned Lilja in a room at the Clarion Hotel on Merritt Island and gained the confession by plying Lilja with beer that they bought and drank with him.
Prosecutor Tom Brown said after Wednesday's hearing that the allegations in Deratany's motion are "absolutely false."
In an e-mailed statement to FLORIDA TODAY, Lt. Bruce Barnett of the Brevard County Sheriff's Office homicide unit said his agency offered Lilja a place to sleep and bathe because he couldn't return to his campsite, which was under investigation by crime-scene personnel.
Officers also wanted an idea of where to find him if they needed to speak with him the next morning, Barnett said.
Agents did not stay with him or conduct an interview at the hotel, Barnett said.
Lilja was questioned the next day at the police precinct, where he waived his Miranda rights, he said.
"At no time did the sheriff's office covertly watch him at the hotel, nor was he told that he was not free to leave the hotel and there was no security provided by the sheriff's office at the hotel to insure that he remained there," Barnett wrote.
Contact Summers at 242-3642 or firstname.lastname@example.org.