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St. Pete men on trial in prostitute's death


Published:   |   Updated: June 18, 2013 at 05:27 PM

CLEARWATER - Her ribs were broken when one of the suspects jumped in the air and landed on her as she lay on the floor. The skin on her breast, arm and back was burned off with an iron. Her head was beaten so badly there was not one spot on her face anyone could touch without a fingertip landing on a bruise or laceration.

That was the portrait put forth by Assistant State Attorney Fred Schaub Tuesday, when testimony began in the trials of two men accused of killing Stacia Berman, a 42-year-old prostitute. She was found in Lake Maggiore in St. Petersburg on Christmas Day, 2011, in between two alligators, her body confused with that of a mannequin.

Santonio Smith and Letrell McKnight, now both 23, initially were arrested on charges of second-degree murder, but a grand jury later indicted them on first-degree murder charges. A third suspect, Darryl Williams, now 36, was also scheduled to be tried this week, representing himself. Williams' trial was postponed Monday after he decided he needed a lawyer and his court-appointed attorney asked for more time to prepare.

Williams was interested in a 30-year sentence in exchange for a plea, but prosecutors balked. They want life sentences for all three.

The three defendants either lived or spent a considerable amount of their time at Apartment 3 at 527 Eighth St. N. in St. Petersburg, selling crack cocaine, police reports state. Berman, a convicted prostitute with a crack addiction, had been seen hanging around the apartment for a couple of months.

On Christmas Eve, Smith discovered four shoes that he had bought for his children as Christmas gifts were missing. Berman emerged immediately as a suspect, and, after she was summoned back to the apartment by a telephone call, she was set upon by the three defendants, beaten, stuffed into the trunk of a car and dumped into the lake, Schaub told jurors in his opening statement.

When she was discovered, Berman's body was wrapped in a bed skirt, her neck was entwined with an electrical cord, and her head was wrapped with two plastic bags.

Inside one of the bags was a Walgreen's receipt for three bottles of Clorox McKnight had purchased, and the transaction was captured on store videotape. Schaub told jurors they poured it on her and made her drink it.

Defense attorneys representing Smith and McKnight told jurors there were problems with the evidence and witness testimony that prosecutors were expected to present over the next few days.

One of the main witnesses in the case is Daryl Davis, who used his mother's car to go to the apartment and acquire some crack. He spent the night there and said there was a "pack mentality" at play when he witnessed part of the assault on Berman, Schaub said. The defendants used his mother's Chrysler 300 to dispose of her body, authorities allege.

Attorney John Trevena, who is representing McKnight, told jurors that Davis initially did not implicate McKnight but later did at the prompting of investigators. He also said there was no reason for McKnight to kill Berman as it was Smith's shoes she was accused of taking, not McKnight's.

Neither Daryl Davis nor Quantae Davis - a neighbor of the defendants and no relation to Daryl, who saw the three defendants putting Berman's body in the trunk - bothered reaching out to authorities to tell them what they had seen.

"None of these people called 911 and said there's a body that's just been loaded into a trunk, or I heard a fight, or I just heard someone beat someone to death," Trevena said. Many of the witnesses were either high on crack or drinking, he said.

Schaub told jurors prosecutors do not necessarily have to prove the murder was premediated, one requirement for a first-degree murder conviction. They could also opt to prove felony murder, where someone is killed during the commission of another crime. Because Berman was in all likelihood alive when she was stuffed into the trunk, as evidenced by her squirming, it could be said she was essentially killed during a kidnapping.

sthompson@tampatrib.com

(727) 215-6504

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