LARGO — A Pinellas County jury listened Tuesday to the vivid and horrifying story of how Stacia Berman’s body was found — wrapped in a blanket, plastic bags covering her head, floating in St. Petersburg’s Lake Maggiore with two alligators swimming nearby.
The story began with cocaine and Christmas shoes, and veered into beating and torture.
Assistant State Attorney Fred Schaub told jurors should conclude the tale by convicting Santonio “Red” Smith and Letrell “Trell” McKnight.
“We’re going to prove to you that these gentlemen are guilty of first degree murder,” Schaub said.
Berman, 42, was a cocaine addict who frequented an apartment at 527 Eighth St. N, with several other users. She was there on Christmas Eve 2011, but left. Afterward, Schaub said, Smith came to believe Berman had stolen shoes he was planning to give his children for Christmas.
So Berman was lured back to the apartment, Schaub said. Smith and McKnight were there along with a third man, Darryl “Rico” Williams, who will be put on trial later. A fourth man was present, but has not been charged and is expected to give eyewitness testimony.
Schaub provided a grisly account of what happened next. He said Smith “jumped on her so hard he broke her ribs.”
She was beaten. Bleach was poured onto her body, and she also was forced to drink it. She was burned with an iron. “Skin was falling off her body, she was crying,” Schaub said
Neighbors saw men carrying what appeared to be a body and putting it into the trunk of a car.
Schaub said it’s clear Smith and McKnight, both 23, killed Berman and should be convicted of premeditated murder. But he said they also could be found guilty under what is known as felony murder. Schaub said both men were kidnapping Berman as she was tortured, and she died as a result of that felony crime. If the jury agrees with that set of facts, it means that under the law, both men could be convicted of first degree murder — even if they didn’t actually intend to kill her.
But defense attorneys urged jurors to take a close look at the state’s case before making any conclusions.
“Mr. McKnight, we believe the evidence will show, did not touch Stacia Berman,” said Attorney John Trevena. He criticized the kidnapping claim also, saying it’s not like Berman was taken someplace against her will because she spent so much time at the apartment that neighbors actually thought she lived there. And unlike Smith, McKnight had no motive, Trevena said