Supreme Court acquits condemned inmate, citing weak evidence
The Associated Press
Posted February 23, 2006, 3:51 PM EST
TALLAHASSEE -- The Florida Supreme Court unanimously ordered the acquittal of a death row inmate today, saying prosecutors had not proven he had killed two of his neighbors by smashing their skulls with a blunt object.
John Robert Ballard, 37, has served nearly three years for the 1999 murders of Jennifer Jones and Willie Ray Patin Jr. at their Collier County apartment, even though there was little to connect him to the slayings of his friends.
"It's music to my ears," said Michael Orlando, the deputy public defender who represented Ballard at trial. "It's taken a long journey, but it was well worth the wait for this particular result."
The state Attorney General's Office, which handled the appeal for prosecutors, has 15 days to ask the court to reconsider, so Ballard won't be released from death row at Union Correctional Institution immediately. The office did not immediately return a call Thursday seeking comment.
Chere Avery, a spokeswoman for the Collier County state attorney's office, which prosecuted the case at trial, said prosecutors were "disappointed." She said the office planned more extensive comment later.
According to the Supreme Court, the only evidence tying Ballard to the slayings was a fingerprint on a bed frame and an arm hair found in Jones' hand.
But, the court said, the state never proved that the fingerprint and hair, found among hundreds of each in the home, hadn't been left during the many times Ballard had visited them. The court also pointed out that the fingerprint wasn't bloody.
In addition, Jones was a marijuana dealer and rival gang members had fired shots into the apartment a week before the slayings but prosecutors never presented evidence ruling out those gang members as the killers.
Ballard's fingerprints were not found in Jones' car, which was abandoned a mile from the apartment, probably by the killer, nor on a barbell found in the apartment that might have been the murder weapon. And while the prosecutors believe the killer's motive was robbery -- Jones kept large amounts of money in the apartment -- there was no evidence Ballard had or spent large sums of money after the slayings.
There was no evidence in Ballard's car or apartment tying him to the killing.
Based on the sparsity of evidence, prosecutors had not proven beyond a reasonable doubt that Ballard was the killer, the court said in its opinion written by Justice Barbara Pariente. The decision overrides the decision of Ballard's jury, which had voted unanimously to convict and 9 to 3 to recommend death.
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