Bargo convicted of first-degree murder
Published: Tuesday, August 20, 2013 at 12:54 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, August 20, 2013 at 4:45 p.m.
A 12-member jury found Michael Bargo guilty of first-degree murder with a firearm on Tuesday, despite an appeal from his attorney for a guilty verdict on a lesser charge.
The penalty phase of the trial will begin Friday morning. The state will present evidence and testimony in support of a death sentence while the defense will argue for life in prison.
The jury will make a recommendation to Circuit Judge David Eddy, and he will decide the sentence.
The courtroom was quiet as the verdict was read aloud Tuesday afternoon. Bargo, who was restrained by shackles, retained his composure.
“I received information that over the weekend Mr. Bargo had conferred with other inmates and was overheard by corrections officers that he intended to act out when the verdict was returned,” Eddy said in explaining the shackles.
After deliberating for three hours, the jury returned its verdict with a caution: Jurors wanted to make sure they would not face any retribution for their decision.
Eddy assured them they would not, and he granted each juror a deputy escort as they walked to their cars.
Bargo was found guilty of murdering 15-year-old Seath Jackson on April 17, 2011. Outside the courtroom, Seath’s parents, Sonia and Scott, declined to comment, but they hugged each other and smiled.
The Bargo family appeared solemn after the verdict; they also declined to comment.
Tuesday morning started with both sides delivering closing arguments. Even the defense asked for a guilty verdict — albeit for the lesser charge of second-degree murder.
“I am not going to stand up here and tell you that Michael Bargo is innocent, because he is not innocent. He is guilty,” defense attorney Charles Holloman said. “But he is not guilty as charged because of that reasonable doubt. ... I ask you to return a verdict of guilty of murder in the second degree.”
Premeditation is not an element of second-degree murder. To prove first-degree murder, the state had to show that the killing was premeditated.
In his closing, Holloman argued that there was no premeditated plan to kill Seath.
“He (Bargo) didn’t talk about a plan. You didn’t hear one single person talk about a plan,” Holloman said, referring to previous testimony in the case.
But in her closing argument, Assistant State Attorney Amy Berndt highlighted for the jury each point of the plan to kill Seath, from luring him to Charlie Ely’s Summerfield home, to neighbors who overheard Bargo tell Amber Wright it was not time to start the fire, to the disposal of Seath’s charred remains in a limestone quarry.
“You can’t get more premeditated than that plan right there,” she said.
Berndt detailed for the jury the testimony of eight witnesses — many of whom had no connection to one another. Various witnesses testified that they heard a confession from Bargo regarding the murder of Seath. In all those cases, the witnesses testified that Bargo told them “I” shot him.
During his own testimony, Bargo said co-defendant Kyle Hooper shot Seath.
Berndt started her closing argument by telling the jurors she would show them something they had not yet seen. With that, a picture of a baby-faced Seath was projected onto the courtroom wall.
Holloman, on the other hand, appealed to a broader context.
“We live in a world that’s very different than it was 20 or 30 years ago,” said Holloman, who told the jury this was not meant to be an excuse or a defense. “Push a button, send a text, as you saw in this case; push a button, publish something on the Internet, ruin somebody’s reputation; push some buttons, get someone killed,” he said.
“He (Bargo) was only 18 when this thing happened,” Holloman said. He noted the deplorable conditions found inside Charlie Ely’s home and asked the question many have wondered: “Where were the parents?”
The defense pointed to a .22-caliber rifle found inside the house and questioned if it played any role in the case. A mixture of Hooper and Seath’s blood was found on the floor. Witnesses testified hearing conversations, possibly from a great distance.
“The only thing that ties him (Bargo) to this is a pack of liars, a pack of admitted killers — that’s it,” Holloman said.
Assistant State Attorney Robin Arnold countered that claim in her rebuttal. She said that the state was prepared to rest on Friday and only called co-defendant Hooper to testify Monday as a result of Bargo’s decision to ask the judge to re-open the case so he could take the stand.
Eddy allowed Bargo to testify on Monday, but the direct testimony took the form of an uninterrupted narrative. There was a legal reason for that.
If a defense attorney believes that his client will falsely testify on the stand, but the client insists on testifying, the attorney must allow the testimony. But the attorney cannot in any way assist the client in testifying, according to attorney Jack Marshall, who is president of ProEthics Ltd., an ethics training and consulting firm in Alexandria, Va.
“If the attorney refuses to examine the defendant on the stand, which is assisting him, then the attorney signals to the judge and the jury that the defendant is lying,” wrote Marshall in his blog, Ethicsalarms.com.
During Bargo’s testimony on Monday, Holloman did not ask any questions of his client or assist the testimony in any way.
Before court started Tuesday, Holloman said he had refused his client’s request to wear all black. Holloman suggested this would send the wrong message to the jury, adding the only thing worse would be to include “a hood and sickle.”
The penalty phase is expected to take about two days. If sentenced to death, Bargo, 21, will be the youngest person on Florida’s death row.
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