Life or death? Bargo's defense team makes its case for life sentence
Published: Friday, August 23, 2013 at 7:02 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, August 23, 2013 at 7:02 p.m.
OCALA - Michael Bargo recalled his first memory: fishing with his grandmother, whose line became so tangled she threw the entire pole into the water. “Funniest memory of my life,” said Bargo with a smile.
The 21-year-old took the witness stand Friday and told the jury he has a fondness for animals, fishing, nature, and dreams of maybe becoming a park ranger one day.
This was Bargo's last chance to humanize himself before the 12-member jury decides which sentence — life in prison or execution — to recommend.
Earlier this week, the jury found Bargo guilty of first-degree murder in the death of Seath Jackson in April 2011. The penalty phase of the trial started Friday.
The jury eventually will recommend a sentence, and Circuit Judge David Eddy will have final say on the punishment.
As Bargo's testimony continued on Friday, the subject quickly changed to his parents' divorce when he was about 7.
“They'd go from little fights to big fights, stuff would get thrown, names would get called, somebody'd peel out of the driveway in a vehicle, it just escalated,” Bargo said.
Bargo's paternal grandmother, Virgie Waller, testified that see once saw a large imprint of Bargo's mother's hand on his skin at least 24 hours after she had hit him. She testified Bargo's mother would hit the boy in the back, legs and shoulders and would “knuckle” him in places where the marks wouldn't show.
Bargo wanted to live with his father, but his mother refused. At one point a psychologist wanted him to receive treatment — right around the time the court was going to allow him to stay with Michael Bargo Sr.
“My mom just wasn't having it,” Bargo said, recalling his mother said he was acting out. She asked Michigan juvenile justice officials to place him somewhere else after he was accused of knocking a cellphone out of her hand during a domestic dispute.
“She didn't want me going with my dad so bad that she just told them, just lock me up, and I ended up doing six months in boot camp,” he told the jury.
Bargo's mother, Tracey O'Brien of Michigan, has not appeared during her son's murder trial. According to the state, this was at her son's request.
The jury heard a history of both parents drinking, Bargo being suspended and expelled from school, domestic violence, and repeated bad parenting — about which defense attorney Charles Holloman aggressively questioned the elder Bargo in an irritated, disgusted tone.
In her opening statement, at the beginning of the penalty phase, Assistant State Attorney Amy Berndt told the 12-member panel the state will present evidence that there are aggravating circumstances about the murder of Seath, 15, that merit a death sentence.
The state is seeking to persuade the jury the murder was cold, calculated and premeditated — an aggravating factor that goes to the nature of the crime itself.
“You already heard evidence in this case, during the guilt phase, of how everybody in this case had a part, they had a role,” she said, referencing Bargo's four co-defendants, all of whom are serving life prison sentences.
The state will also seek to prove the crime was heinous, atrocious and cruel — an aggravating factor that goes to how the murder was carried out.
According to the state, Seath was lured to Charlie Ely's Summerfield home, where he was beaten and shot. Then his body was burned in a fire pit and his ashes dumped into a rock quarry.
The state did not present any testimony Friday morning; instead, it chose to wait and respond after the defense presents its case. The proceedings are scheduled to resume Monday morning.
During her opening statement, defense attorney Candace Hawthorne described Bargo's life before the divorce as “Disney-like.”
Around the time of the divorce, Bargo was diagnosed with ADD/ADHD, and his medication would make him sleepy and lose his appetite. His thoughts later turned to suicide, according to Hawthorne.
“Michael Bargo's abnormal brain affected his ability to control his rage,” Hawthorne said.
The jury also heard this from Dr. Joseph Wu, an expert in neurocognitive imaging, who discussed the results of a PET scan done on Bargo to determine brain functioning.
The results showed one area of Bargo's brain as higher-functioning than a normal brain.
“I don't think he has what we call motor seizures. I think that he had what we call partial complex seizure…where he is having basically epilepsy or seizure of his mood, his aggressions, his behavior, that he had periods where he might become depressed, periods where he might start to have hallucinations,” the doctor testified.
On cross-examination, Assistant State Attorney Robin Arnold pointed out possible issues with the testing.
She also pointed out the testing on Bargo was done this year when he was 21 — not in 2011, at age 18, when the crime was committed.
After the opening statements the defense tried to call several Summerfield residents as witnesses who could shed light on the feud between Bargo and Seath, including Bargo's grandmother, who was personally threatened by Seath.
But the judge did not allow this testimony, saying it was not relevant to the penalty phase.
Instead, Hawthorne called Bargo's sister, Lauren, and several family friends from Michigan who testified via video.
While none of the witnesses delved into much detail about Bargo's past — despite prodding from the defense — they did paint a picture of a family that struggled through a divorce. They said the divorce left Bargo bitter, holding a grudge, and at times acting out.
“She (their mother) threw a shoe at him one time, that's all I remember,” said Lauren Bargo, 14.
At the end of his testimony, Bargo crinkled his face, with voice distressed, and shared his thoughts on possibly being sentenced to death even though he's only lived a short time.
“I... never had a house, never had a car, never been married, never had kids,” he told the jury. “You're about to take something from me that I've never even had.”
Contact April Warren at 867-4065 or firstname.lastname@example.org.