Appeals court reinstates conviction in 2011 murder of firefighter

Appeals court affirmed Charles Pearce's sentence to life in prison

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The First District Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction and sentence of a man found guilty of killing a retired Jacksonville Beach firefighter in 2011, the State Attorney’s Office announced Wednesday.

Charles Edward Pearce was convicted in 2014 and sentenced to mandatory life in prison on charges of first-degree murder and first-degree attempted murder.

In 2011, Pearce approached Michael McCue, 42, while the former firefighter was working in his front yard then shot and killed him, Duval County prosecutors said.

Minutes later, Michael Otis, 58, was riding his motor scooter along Fifth Avenue North in Jacksonville Beach when he saw Pearce, his stepson, standing in the road. Pearce then raised his gun and shot at Otis, barely missing him, prosecutors said.

Pearce’s lawyers had been pushing for a new trial, arguing he was mentally incompetent and the jury didn’t get to see all the evidence.

After Pearce was convicted of murdering his neighbor, his lawyers filed an appeal on the grounds that the court made a mistake when the defense wasn’t allowed to show the jury part of a videotaped interview that police conducted the day after his arrest in Arizona. The defense argued that portion of the videotape would have proved Pearce was incompetent to stand trial.

Last December, the First District Court of Appeals agreed and threw out the conviction, ordering a new trial. On Wednesday, the appeals court reversed that decision.

People in the legal community told News4Jax that the decision was a surprise, saying the First District Court of Appeals rarely changes its mind.

Gene Nichols, an attorney not affiliated with the case, told News4Jax this is highly unusual. He said the court determined the problem with the original trial was a harmless error.

“It did not hurt his defense. It did not affect the jury and for that jury, they have made a decision. That whether the decision was right or wrong, but because it did not affect the jury’s decision, they have reversed their decision -- very rare,” Nichols said.

Nichols said after the December decision by the appeals court to throw out the conviction, the State Attorney’s Office worked with the Attorney General’s Office to ask the court to reconsider, which it did.

News4Jax spoke with McCue’s brother, who declined to go on camera but said, “Justice has been served” and “It’s been five years and a lot of stress.”

Nichols said it’s possible Pearce’s defense team could appeal again, perhaps to the First District Court of Appeals or maybe even the state Supreme Court that might find the change of heart by the lower court worthy of consideration.

“They will obviously petition to the Supreme Court. This is a matter that, because the complexities of the First District Court of Appeals reversing itself, whether or not it will hear it, will be up to the Supreme Court and see what happens from there,” Nicholas said.

Nicholas said if this does make it to the Supreme Court, defense lawyers would likely have the goal of throwing out everything and re-trying this case, but a lot would have to happen to make that a possibility.

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