Prosecutors clear second man in UF student's beating death
Published: Friday, January 6, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 6, 2006 at 12:38 a.m.
JACKSONVILLE - Prosecutors have dropped their case against a second man, jailed since October in connection with the beating death of a University of Florida senior over last year's Florida-Georgia weekend.
A judge ordered Jeffery Gronczniak, 19, freed from the Duval County jail after he entered a guilty plea on an unrelated felony traffic case Thursday.
As part of the plea agreement, Gronczniak agreed to "testify truthfully" at any upcoming trial, specifically the case against three men - Alex Samuel Canzano, 22, Jeremy Alan Lane, 22, and Mark Tyler Foss, 19 - accused of second-degree murder in the death of Thomas Oliver Brown.
This is the second time in three weeks that prosecutors have struck a defendant from the case.
Shortly before Christmas, the prosecution also dropped the case against Casey Michael Schuurman, 20, of Jacksonville. Like Gronczniak, he had been held at the jail since Brown's death but had not been formally charged with second-degree murder. His attorney has since said prosecutors intend to use Schuurman as a witness.
Brown, 23, died from blunt trauma to the head. Police initially alleged two of the five men arrested struck the college student and fatally injured him outside a downtown Jacksonville building while three others cornered him. Friends said Brown had gone to the Jacksonville Landing to watch the annual football game between the Gators and the Bulldogs.
Gronczniak's name was called in the courthouse as one of a series of individuals entering pleas and having court dates set in the second-floor courtroom.
Relatives sat in the back row of the courtroom, watching as lawyers discussed the plea. Gronczniak, dressed in a dark green jail uniform and handcuffed, stood quietly before the judge's bench.
The Ponte Vedra Beach man pleaded guilty to driving last year with a suspended license while being a habitual traffic offender.
Circuit Judge Jack Schemer advised Gronczniak that he could face a maximum of five years in prison for the charge. Gronczniak briefly answered the judge's questions, assuring him he understood the conditions of the plea agreement.
Gronczniak would be released on his own recognizance, the judge said, but would be back in jail if he has any new violations before he is sentenced.
A sentencing date has been set for April.
But that could be delayed, depending on the pending murder case. No trial date has been scheduled for Canzano, Lane or Foss.
Relatives looked enthusiastic as the judge made his announcements. They left the courtroom without commenting, except to speak with Gronczniak's attorney, John Whited.
The defense attorney and Assistant State Attorney Bernie de la Rionda said after the hearing they could not comment on Gronczniak's release or other matters relating to the Brown murder case.
Contacted after the hearing, one of Brown's relatives spoke on behalf of that family, saying they have mixed feelings about Gronczniak's release.
"The family wants nothing more than justice for Tommy, as well as closure to this horrific tragedy," said one of Brown's cousins, Natalie Norwood of Merritt Island. "We want these criminals off the streets in order to prevent future pain and suffering for other families."
If that means the prosecution has to take steps like they did Thursday, Norwood said, "The family is OK with that if that is what it takes to get the real criminals off the street."
But, she also said, referring to events leading to her cousin's death, "We want anybody connected to the event to understand that this is not acceptable."
UF law professor Michael Seigel, a former federal prosecutor, said the move by the prosecution to use Gronczniak and Schuurman as witnesses could be a "big help" to the state's case.
"Particularly, if these guys don't have a whole lot of liability in the first place," Seigel said. "If their testimony is solid for the state, in terms of who threw the punches, I think that's going to be very helpful to the state's case."
Police have not said what part any of the men accused in the attack played the evening of Oct. 29.
A surveillance video from the building where Brown was attacked shows that the encounter between him and the other men was brief, less than a minute, and there were few blows. But his injuries were deadly.
Seigel said the prosecution appears to be "cutting their losses."
"They're picking and choosing who they think their best case will be against."
Lise Fisher can be reached at (352) 374-5092 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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