TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Nearly nine years after the grisly discovery of six bodies in a central Florida home, an attorney for one of the convicted murderers argued Thursday that a mistrial should have been sought in the case and that his client had been wrongly portrayed as the ringleader.
Christopher Anderson, an appellate attorney for Death Row inmate Troy Victorino, told the Florida Supreme Court that another defendant in what became known as the "Xbox murders" refused to be cross-examined while testifying during the trial. Anderson contended that Victorino's trial attorneys improperly failed to seek a mistrial when that refusal took place.
Anderson said the lack of cross-examination helped lead to the conclusion that his client was the ringleader in the killings in a Deltona home --- a notion that Anderson disputed. Victorino and three other men were convicted in the case, which involved the victims being beaten with baseball bats.
"He was framed as the ringleader, and that's what got him the death penalty,'' Anderson said.
But Senior Assistant Attorney General Kenneth Nunnelley offered another explanation for the death sentence: He said Victorino "deserved it." Nunnelley said Victorino wanted to retrieve some belongings from the home, including an Xbox video game system, and kicked in the door, shattering the dead-bolt lock.
At least some of the justices also appeared skeptical of Anderson's arguments, which centered on the refusal by defendant Robert Cannon to be cross-examined. Cannon had negotiated a plea agreement in which he was a witness for the state.
Anderson said Cannon claimed the 6-foot-7 Victorino had bullied him into taking part in the bludgeoning deaths, a claim that the appellate attorney described as "nonsense." But Justice Charles Canady appeared to flatly reject that argument.
"He was afraid of him --- and apparently with quite good reason,'' Canady said.
The August 2004 murders drew national attention, at least in part because of their gruesome nature and the number of victims. Victorino, now 36, has been depicted as the ringleader since the time of the killings and was convicted on six counts of first-degree murder, along with other charges.
In addition to Victorino, defendant Jerone Hunter, now 26, was sentenced to death. Cannon and Michael Salas, both 27, received life sentences. The victims, who were discovered in various rooms of the blood-stained house, were Erin Belanger, Roberto Gonzalez, Michelle Nathan, Anthony Vega, Jonathon Gleason and Francisco Ayo-Roman.
The Supreme Court in 2009 upheld Victorino's convictions and death sentence in what is known as a "direct" appeal. But the arguments Thursday were more narrowly tailored to arguments that he had received ineffective legal representation.
If the appeal is successful, Anderson said Victorino could receive a new trial or a new sentencing hearing. It typically takes justices months to issue rulings.
Anderson said, for example, the portrayal of Victorino as a ringleader could have influenced the decision of jurors to call for the death penalty.
"It's really critical to the life versus death decision, in particular,'' Anderson said.
At one point, however, Justice Peggy Quince scoffed at the suggestion that Victorino might have only gone to the Deltona home with the intent to "rough people up" and get belongings he thought were there.
"So he went in to rough up people with a baseball bat?'' she asked.
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