James Carlton convicted of 2nd-degree murder in death of Michael Nichols

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After four hours and 20 minutes of deliberations, a 12-member jury declined to find James Theral Carlton guilty of first-degree murder Friday afternoon. But it did find him guilty of the lesser offense of second-degree murder for the 2010 death of Michael Nichols.

After four hours and 20 minutes of deliberations, a 12-member jury declined to find James Theral Carlton guilty of first-degree murder Friday afternoon. But it did find him guilty of the lesser offense of second-degree murder for the 2010 death of Michael Nichols.

That was not all the jury members had to say, however.

The jurors, acting on a suggestion that Assistant State Attorney Amy Berndt made during her closing argument, wrote a personal note on the back of the verdict form expressing their displeasure that others involved in the case were never charged.

“The jurors signed below disagree with and find unacceptable the State of Florida not charging the associated witnesses in the commission of stated crimes surrounding this trial,” the jurors wrote. All 12 signed their names.

No DNA evidence tied Carlton to the crime, but two key witnesses did. Both admitted, however, to being aware of the killing and quasi-assisting in disposing of the body.

Neither person received immunity, and officials did not charge either one.

“We fully appreciate and understand the jury’s frustration,” Assistant State Attorney William Gladson said after the verdict was announced. “Sometimes decisions have to be made in order to seek a just result. We share their frustration.”

A sentencing hearing will be held on Oct. 2. Circuit Judge Hale Stancil will select a sentence from a range of about 20 years in prison to a maximum life term.

Outside the courtroom late Friday, defense attorney Tania Alavi, who tried the case with Andrew Pozzuto, said that no matter what sentence their client receives, his age — 67 — and poor health would likely make any sentence a life term.

 “We tried as hard as we could,” she said, adding that she believes there are some appellate issues to be explored.

“The most disheartening thing was the note they (jurors) wrote on the back,” Alavi said.

Upon hearing the verdict, friends and relatives of Nichols who were in the courtroom broke down in tears.

“Four years of suffering,” said Nichols’ lifelong friend Julian White.

White described his friend as a brother or father figure, and someone who was eager to help.

For employment, Nichols installed and restored windows. He was a father of five children, though he had drifted away from his family before his death.

Throughout the week-long trial, the jury heard testimony presented by the state linking Carlton to the Dec. 3, 2010, murder of Nichols, 41, and the burying of Nichols’ body in a vacant lot.

 The case involved a cast of characters, some of whom had admitted to lying to law enforcement. The defense argued that the jury could not convict their client based on the lies told by a group of individuals who were living with Carlton at the time of the murder.

The defense argued that Carlton was the most stable individual of the group and that the state did not have the right man.

“Mr. Carlton is not guilty. He did not do this,” Pozzuto said in his closing statement.

Pozzuto said the real truth remains unknown.

“Because of the lies that were told on the stand, it is the theory of our defense that we will never know what happened,” Pozzuto said.

During trial, the state presented evidence that Nichols had briefly moved into Carlton’s Florida Highlands home before his death. Nichols usually possessed an abundance of prescription medication, which became coveted by others living in the house who were addicted to pills.

Nichols’ medication was needed because he suffered injuries in a serious car wreck.

 The Florida Highlands area, known for its dirt roads and a small country store, is near Dunnellon.

The state argued that Carlton shot Nichols twice in the head while the two were in the backyard of the home. They say Carlton then hauled Nichols’ body to a wooded lot a few miles away and buried it in a shallow grave with debris piled on top.

The state believes Carlton’s motive was to take Nichols’ pills and give them to a woman for whom he had feelings.

State witness Paul Carr testified about being inside the defendant’s home the day of the murder. Carr recalled hearing a gunshot and running to a window, where he saw Nichols on the ground and Carlton with an outstretched hand that held, he thought, a handgun.

The defense pointed out that Carr has previously been convicted of petty theft, a crime of dishonesty, and at the time of the killing was using pills.

Carr also testified that he watched Carlton move Nichols’ body into Carlton’s truck. Carr said he drove with Carlton to the burial site, where the defendant unloaded the body.

Carr’s sometime girlfriend, Dezarae Patterson, gave a similar account. She said she heard gunshots the day Nichols was killed and eventually led authorities to Nichols’ body, which was unearthed in a wooded lot about three months later.

 Patterson told the court that she overheard the defendant plot to kill Nichols about a month before his death.

The defense told the jury that Carr and Patterson are not to be trusted.

“A story is a story, and basically their story is a fairy tale,” Pozzuto said.

“Their (prosecutors’) foundation is bad because it’s based on people who don’t tell the truth,” Pozzuto said.

He said the devil is in the details, and wondered aloud why Patterson testified to burning her clothes after the murder if she had no involvement in the crime.

Berndt told the jury earlier in the day that no witness in the case was given immunity for their statements and testimony. She said no one else was charged in the crime, and if that upset the jurors, then they could write that on the bottom of the verdict form.

But Carlton shouldn’t be given a free pass, Berndt argued.

 “He doesn’t get a walk because nobody else was charged,” Berndt said.

According to the medical examiner, Nichols died of two gunshot wounds to the head. Projectiles recovered during the autopsy were consistent with bullets found in a tree near where Carr and Patterson said the killing occurred.

A firearms expert could not say for certain the bullets came from a handgun Carlton sold a week after the murder.

“Until she (firearms expert) comes back and says it’s conclusive this gun is not a match, and they don’t have the murder weapon is the only thing you can conclude about that,” Pozzuto said.

According to trial testimony, the .25-caliber handgun is consistent with the bullets found during the autopsy and in the tree. It was impossible to determine, however, when they were fired into the tree.

After the murder, the defendant moved to Tennessee, where he eventually had another interview with Marion County Sheriff’s Office Detective Donald Buie. When Buie asked Carlton if he had recently sold the gun, Carlton said, “No, sir.”

The defense also referenced a woman, Allyson Hall, and her sons, who lived in the Highlands and possessed a firearm and could have been involved in the crime.

 “There are other people out there who should have been considered,” Pozzuto said.

Neither Hall nor her sons took the stand this week.

Carlton exercised his right not to testify.

The defense did call on a man who lived in the Florida Highlands at the time of the murder and said the weapon in evidence looked like one possessed by Anthony Daiuto, one of Hall’s sons.

During investigation of the case, Carlton had told law enforcement officers that Daiuto had previously discussed wanting to harm Nichols. The state said that if Carlton was an honest man, he would have immediately notified police after hearing such statements.

A crime scene reconstructionist, who measured certain distances inside Carlton’s home, sought to shed doubt on Carr’s story about going to the window after hearing the first gunshot and seeing Nichols on the ground. According to the reconstructionist, Carr would have had to travel a considerable distance.

After the trial concluded, Gladson acknowledged the murder would not have been solved without the efforts of Buie and the Nichols family.

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