CLEARWATER — A strange, skyward shot to fame that began six years ago – when her inability to stop hiccupping became fodder for the nation’s talk shows – came crashing to the ground on Friday, when Jennifer Mee was convicted of first-degree murder.
After deliberating for almost four hours, a jury found the St. Petersburg high school dropout guilty in the 2010 death of 22-year-old Shannon Griffin, a man she had met on the social networking site, MocoSpace.com.
“I’m just glad for the victory,” said Griffin’s mother, Shanna, as she walked out of the county’s criminal justice center.
A few jurors, all women, were crying as they were polled after the verdict was read in court. Mee, too, sobbed, her eyes red, as she wiped the tears away. She cried as she walked to the podium to be sentenced, and she cried as she was fingerprinted and led to her permanent life behind bars.
Circuit Judge Nancy Moate Ley promptly sentenced Mee, now 22, to life in prison, the only penalty allowed under Florida law.
When the verdict was read, Griffin’s cousin, Doug Bolden, patted Shanna Griffin’s thigh as they sat together. “We made it,” he said.
After communicating with Griffin on MocoSpace.com, Mee arranged for Griffin to meet two of her roommates -- her boyfriend, Lamont Newton, and Laron Raiford – in a dark alley in St. Petersburg, ostensibly to buy marijuana from the pair, investigators say.
Instead, the two men tried to rob Griffin, Griffin fought back, and Raiford shot him, they say .
Raiford was convicted of first-degree murder last month and was sentenced to life in prison. Newton has yet to go to trial.
The conviction brings to an end a strange odyssey that began in 2007 with Mee, then 15, appearing on morning news programs, including the “Today” show, after her hiccupping problem came to light. Her time in the spotlight took a macabre turn in October 2010, when she was arrested in Griffin’s death.
The most damaging evidence against Mee in Griffin’s death was Mee herself, who admitted to setting Griffin up in both a taped interview with a detective and in a taped telephone call from the Pinellas County Jail to her mother after she was booked.
Prosecutors encouraged jurors to listen to those tapes while they deliberated.
“Listen to the level of detail she gives to detectives,” Assistant State Attorney Christopher LaBruzzo told jurors in his closing arguments.
“Do you know who our star witness is?” Assistant State Attorney Jan Olney said during her closing arguments Friday. “Jennifer Mee.”
Because she had arranged a crime that resulted in a person’s death, Mee is as guilty as the person who pulled the trigger, under Florida law.
After Griffin was discovered shot, investigators found his belongings in a plastic bag, hidden in a bathroom vent, in a north St. Petersburg apartment to which the trio had access. In the bag were Griffin’s wallet, which contained his driver’s license, and his cell phone.
On the driver’s license were Mee’s fingerprints.
Investigators arrested the three after looking at the numbers Griffin was calling from his cell phone.
Mee’s defense attorney, John Trevena, portrayed a different sequence of events and tried to punch holes in the one put forth by prosecutors.
Trevena, in his closing remarks, noted Griffin’s autopsy did not turn up any marijuana in his system, indicating he didn’t use the drug on a regular basis. And Griffin’s cousin, Bolden, claimed that Griffin told him he was going to go out on a date after having worked at Wal-Mart for a year and taking a week’s vacation, Trevena said.
“He’s getting out to see a girl,” Trevena said. “Nothing about purchasing marijuana.”
Trevena also suggested that, although Mee admitted to setting the robbery up in one tape to investigators, in a prior one she lay out a different chain of events that implicated Raiford’s girlfriend, Jennifer Charron. Charron lived with the three suspects.
Mee, in the first interview, said Charron was the one who was to meet Griffin in the alley. When Raiford came upon them, he flew into a rage and killed Griffin, Mee said in the tape. Griffin was found with his pants pulled down below his crotch, and investigators found a condom wrapper.
And Charron performed sexual acts for money at the spa where she worked, according to testimony.
Prosecutors balked at Trevena’s argument.
“There was no inkling this was a sexual crime,” LaBruzzo said. “Don’t force yourself to speculate about those things.”
Trevena argued the manner in which Griffin was killed was more symptomatic of a crime of passion than it was a robbery that went awry. Six shots were fired from the murder weapon, a .38-caliber special, and four struck Griffin, three times in the chest, and once in the shoulder.
Trevena also noted Charron, unlike Mee, didn’t initially cooperate with police. She hung up on an investigator when she was first contacted, she relocated her three roommates to a different apartment after the homicide, she invoked her right to an attorney, and she suggested they all eliminate physical evidence with bleach, Trevena said in closing arguments.
When he questioned Charron on the witness stand Friday, however, the only testimony she gave was that she performed sexual acts for money, and that she suggested they destroy evidence with bleach.