BARTOW | Joseph Eli Bearden was found guilty of second-degree murder Friday and sentenced to life in prison in the death of a 25-year-old gay man in a case that drew national attention.
After nearly two days of deliberation, jurors returned a verdict of guilty of second-degree murder. Bearden was being tried for first-degree murder and prosecutors had sought the death penalty.
Defense lawyer Byron Hileman called the verdict a “partial victory.”
“The death penalty is gone. We set out on this case to save his life.”
Bearden is one of two defendants charged with the 2007 murder of Ryan Skipper. Prosecutors claimed Bearden, 23, and William David Brown Jr., killed Skipper and stole his 2007 Chevrolet Aveo. Brown, 22, of Wahneta, is awaiting trial.
A woman going to the store about 1 a.m. on March 14, 2007, discovered Skipper’s body lying on Morgan Road in Wahneta, south of Winter Haven. He had been stabbed to death.
His throat had been cut. There were also multiple stab wounds to his shoulder and back.
His lawyers contended Bearden didn’t take part in the murder and only helped get rid of evidence.
Skipper’s death brought attention to harassment and violence directed toward gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people.
Bearden also was found guilty of theft of a motor vehicle, of dealing in stolen property, tampering with evidence and of being an accessory after the fact.