Friday, March 6, 2009

Motions To Suppress Evidence Denied In Sottile Murder Trial

SEBRING - Motions to suppress a statement to law enforcement and a gunshot residue test were denied Wednesday in the case of a Sebring man charged with killing Florida Highway Patrol Sgt. Nicholas Sottile.

Joshua Lee Altersberger, 21, is charged with first-degree murder and possession of a firearm by a delinquent felon. He is accused of shooting and killing Sottile, 48, a 24-year FHP veteran, on Jan. 12, 2007, during a traffic stop.

The trial is scheduled to begin March 16 with jury selection in Bartow before Judge Michael J. Hunter following the granting of a change of venue motion in February.

The statement Altersberger gave to law enforcement went on for two or three hours, but boiled down simply to "I didn't do it," according to Assistant State Attorney Steve Houchin.

"He gives an excuse as to why his car might have been on the scene, but he wouldn't have been in it," Houchin said. "Somebody else would have had it. It's more complicated that that, but it boiled down to, 'I didn't do it.'"

The gunshot residue test was done on Altersberger's hands and showed they had chemicals that are consistent with firing a firearm, according to Houchin. That, however, does not mean the defendant did fire a gun.

"He could have been shooting firecrackers," Houchin said. "He could have been doing other similar types of things. (The lab) can't say what kind of gun or when, but they can say that he had chemicals on his hands consistent with being near a firearm that was discharged. So that's obviously why they might want to suppress that."

What did not seem quite so obvious was the reason defense wanted to suppress Altersberger's statement to law enforcement where he reportedly denied shooting Sottile.

Houchin explained it was during this statement that authorities asked for Altersberger's consent to swab his hands for the gunshot residue.

"Their argument was, 'Suppress the statement, judge, and then, while you're at it, the consent for the gunshot residue, which is contained within that statement, then you should suppress that too,'" he said. "One flows from the other."

Moving To A Jury

Altersberger's trial is scheduled to start in less than two weeks and Houchin does not see any other hearings on the horizon.

Three weeks have been set aside for the trial, with the first devoted solely to seating a jury.

However, it might not take the entire first week to select a jury.

"Now that it's up in Polk County (and) you don't have the pretrial publicity to deal with, we should get the jury within three or four days would be my guess," Houchin said.

If a jury is selected by Wednesday or Thursday of that first week, it is possible for opening statements to happen by that Friday, according to Houchin.

Witnesses, however, will not start being presented until March 23.

"I have approximately 40 to 50 witnesses and I'm trying to get it down as much as possible," Houchin said.

With Bartow roughly an hour away from Highlands County, Houchin is going to spend the next few days contacting his witnesses to see who can get to court on their own and who will need rides.

Agencies like the Highlands County Sheriff's Office, Florida Department of Law Enforcement and Florida Highway Patrol, as well as the state attorney's own investigator, will work to arrange transportation for witnesses who need it.

Family To Attend

Just before the two-year anniversary of his brother's death, Jimmy Sottile said he will be there for Altersberger's trial, although it will be "hard to sit there."

"My father's going to have to listen to my brother screaming for help," Sottile previously said. "I don't even know if I can sit there and hear him screaming for help."

Sottile's wife, Elizabeth, had said she attends all the court proceedings and the trial will be no different.

"I will not miss a day," she said.

A Guilty Verdict?

Houchin hopes to present the state's case in five days, although he admits it could stretch out a little longer than that. Hunter had talked with attorneys on both sides about hopefully having a verdict by the beginning or middle of the third week.

"Depending on what that verdict is, if it's first-degree murder, then we move on in to the second phase of the trial, which is the penalty part," Houchin said.

The state has filed a notice of intent to seek the death penalty for Altersberger. Florida statute requires that, on top of it being a first-degree murder case, certain circumstances must exist before the prosecution can go for the ultimate punishment, according to Houchin.

The victim being a law enforcement officer is one such circumstance.
Motions attacking the constitutionality of the death penalty in regards to this case were previously denied.

"If they don't file them (motions) and litigate it at the trial level, they cannot use that for any type of appeal," Houchin explained.

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