TAMPA, Fla. — Michael Keetley was deep into his sixth year at the Falkenburg Road Jail, with no date in sight for his murder trial, when the letter arrived. He showed it to his parents, who had cashed in their retirement savings to pay his legal fees.
Paul S. Carr, the Ruskin attorney he had entrusted to help keep him out of prison and off death row, was suggesting he should find another lawyer. A collision, Carr said, had left him with a severe head injury.
“My greatest fear,” the attorney wrote, “is that my declining mental and physical health could possibly lead or contribute to a wrongful conviction.”
Of the dozens of defendants awaiting trial in Hillsborough County, none has waited longer than Keetley, 46, an ice cream vendor accused of killing two men and wounding four others one night on the porch of a Ruskin home.
He has appeared in court more than 60 times since his 2010 arrest. His hair has grayed. His skin has lost its color behind jailhouse walls. Other jail inmates have come and gone, but he has quietly lingered, professing his innocence.
The delays have been driven in part by legal challenges to Florida’s death penalty.
But there were other problems, too.
Attorney Lyann Goudie, initially hired as Carr’s co-counsel, has steadily protested to a judge that she needed more help in Keetley’s defense, both before and after Carr’s letter led to his exit from the case.
And, curiously, a crash report does not support Carr’s claim that he suffered a head injury. It notes “minor lacerations” on a forearm and hand.
The case began with seven men playing cards in front of a little white house on a looping Ruskin street called Ocean Mist Court, about 2:30 a.m. on Thanksgiving Day in 2010.
As they drank their beers, a dark-colored minivan pulled up.
Survivors later spoke of a man who wore a shirt reading “sheriff.” He got out of the van carrying a shotgun and asked for someone named “Creep.” The men did know someone by that name, but they didn’t say so. The gunman ordered them all to lie on the ground. Believing he was a cop, they complied. Then, one by one, he shot them.
Brothers Juan and Sergio Guitron, known as “Magic” and “Spider,” were killed.
Days later, Esteban Rivera, who had worked as an informer for law enforcement, approached detectives. He said a man named Mike, who drove a purple ice cream truck, might have been involved in the shooting.
Keetley, who drove such a truck, had been the victim of a robbery months earlier. He was shot several times. Doctors placed metal rods in his bones to repair the damage. Left permanently disabled, he began collecting Social Security benefits.
Rivera said Keetley had been looking for his attackers ever since. He claimed Keetley offered him $1,500 to find “Creep,” whom he believed was one of the robbers, and “take care of him,” according to court records.
After the killings, a picture of Keetley circulated in text messages among friends of the victims.
A search of the 15-acre Wimauma farm where Keetley lived with his parents turned up spent .45-caliber projectiles. Forensic technicians said some appeared to have been fired from the same gun used in the killings.
When survivors were shown a photo lineup, a few, but not all, identified Keetley as the shooter.
Deputies arrested Keetley twice within a matter of a few days, first for having a gun.
He wasn’t supposed to have one. An ex-girlfriend’s neighbors had an active injunction against him after alleging he had made threats. A fellow ice cream truck driver had also complained about him, saying he threatened to burn her truck if she didn’t stay out of his territory.
His family hired Carr to defend him on the misdemeanor gun charge.
Carr’s name was known in Ruskin. He had an office on U.S. 41 with large letters advertising “PERSONAL INJURY” and smaller letters for general and criminal law.
Tall and portly, he speaks in a boisterous southern drawl that makes judges throughout Hillsborough County smile with familiarity.
When Keetley was charged with the murders four days later, he stuck with Carr.
Two months after Keetley’s arrest, the state announced plans to pursue the death penalty, a change that made the case inherently more complicated.
Carr, who is not a death penalty-qualified defense lawyer, hired Lyann Goudie, a Tampa lawyer.
She has a record of defending capital clients and has worked on other high-profile cases. Most recently, she has represented LaJoyce Houston, the former Tampa police officer awaiting a federal trial in a tax fraud conspiracy case.
Keetley’s case faded from the headlines. His lawyers questioned witnesses, filed motions, challenged the state’s evidence. Judges came and went.
In November 2014, Goudie asked a judge to declare Keetley indigent to get help with legal expenses. His parents had gone broke trying to defend their son. They had paid Carr $119,384 in fees, Goudie wrote, and $75,000 to her. A judge ordered the state to pay future costs.
Then, in August 2015, Goudie asked Judge Samantha Ward to appoint a third attorney to assist in Keetley’s defense.
Goudie’s request was filed under seal. However, it was discussed during an open court hearing, according to a transcript.
Carr, the lead attorney, did not attend, records show.
Goudie told the judge another attorney was necessary to help gather mitigating evidence to fight a death sentence in the event that Keetley is convicted.
“Without getting into extreme detail,” she said in court, “I will tell you that — even though there are two attorneys that are on this case — that I have been heavily, heavily involved in the first phase.
“Although (Carr) was the attorney that was hired by the family and is technically the lead attorney on this case, I really can tell this court that I have taken this case on.”
A lawyer for the Justice Administrative Commission, the state entity that pays court-appointed attorneys, objected to Goudie’s request. His argument: Since Keetley had retained Carr and Goudie as private counsel, there was no reason to appoint a third lawyer.
Ward agreed, denying Goudie’s request.
In the months that followed, Carr submitted some of the case filings and appeared at some of the hearings.
Then, on May 13 last year, came the letter.
“Dear Michael,” Carr wrote on a page of his office letterhead. “At this point I feel it is my duty and obligation to inform you about some facts that have a direct bearing on my ability to continue to effectively represent you in your murder case.”
Two years earlier, Carr wrote, he was knocked unconscious during a car accident.
“I was diagnosed with a level four head/brain concussion, nerve damage as well as other injuries,” he wrote. “A level four concussion is the type suffered by professional football players which leads to progressive mental detrition and dementia similar to Alzheimer’s Disease.”
Since the accident, Carr wrote, he had experienced a noticeable decline in mental and physical health. He described headaches, forgetfulness, inability to concentrate, pain, dizziness and five fainting episodes. He said he sometimes worked only two to three hours a day.
He noted his fear that his condition could lead to a wrongful conviction.
“You might possibly consider having the court appoint another attorney to take over for me,” the letter stated. “I simply could not bear the thought that I may not be able to provide you with my best efforts in this case and at Trial.”
He said he would tell Goudie about the situation.
“I did not expect this case to take over five years,” he wrote. “However, there was a mountain of stuff to do and there still is.”
Seven weeks later, Ward held a hearing to discuss the letter and a Keetley request regarding the continuation of his defense counsel. The documents were sealed from public view. The judge also ordered the courtroom closed, over the objection of an attorney for local media.
Quoting case law, Ward said the closure was “necessary to prevent a serious and immediate threat to the administration of justice” and that the matter concerned information not subject to public records laws.
When the courtroom reopened, Ward announced that Goudie was now Keetley’s lead counsel. Carr was gone.
While Carr’s letter remains under seal, Keetley shared a copy of it with his parents, who gave it to the Tampa Bay Times.
In a recent phone call from jail, Keetley said he was disappointed in Carr’s defense efforts.
“I don’t think he should have taken the case to begin with,” Keetley said. “I didn’t see him that much.”
Goudie declined to discuss Carr with a reporter.
Carr would not discuss the letter or his health after multiple requests from the Tampa Bay Times. He did not respond to a letter from the Times asking about the crash, his departure from the Keetley case, and his subsequent work for other clients.
“The judge has made it confidential,” he said of the letter he sent to Keetley. “I’m under court order.”
There is no mention of Carr being knocked unconscious or suffering a head injury in the Hillsborough County sheriff’s report detailing the May 20, 2014, crash, which occurred near his Ruskin law office.
A driver going about 5 mph pulled out in front of Carr, whose van was going about 25 mph, the report said. Carr was wearing a seat belt and his airbag deployed, the deputy noted.
The deputy described his injuries as “non-incapacitating,” noting that he suffered “minor lacerations to the back of his left hand and forearm.”
“No other injuries were reported,” the deputy wrote.
Ten months after the crash, Carr filed a lawsuit in Hillsborough Circuit Court against his auto insurance company, trying to get them to pay for medical expenses and lost wages. He described multiple back injuries, a hand injury and brain trauma.
The company paid him the $100,000 limit of his under-insured motorist coverage, according to court records.
Two days after his accident, records show Carr appeared in court to represent a woman who was being sentenced on a marijuana charge.
In the three years since, he has been listed in court records as an attorney in dozens of matters. He assisted the family of Doug Hughes, the Ruskin mail carrier who was convicted of federal charges related to his flight in a gyrocopter to the U.S. Capitol.
Carr currently represents defendants in at least two ongoing felony cases, according to Hillsborough County Clerk of Court records.
After Carr left Keetley’s case, Goudie asked, again, to have another lawyer appointed to assist her.
In death penalty cases, she said, defendants typically have two defense attorneys. One handles the trial and another handles the sentencing.
But her request was deemed unnecessary because the judge found that the existing death penalty statute could not be used. The U.S. Supreme Court had declared Florida’s process for imposing death sentences to be unconstitutional.
Therefore, the judge reasoned, there was no need to appoint a second lawyer.
Goudie continued to prepare for Keetley’s trial alone.
In March, Gov. Rick Scott signed into law a new death penalty.
With capital punishment back on the table, Goudie asked, for the third time, to have another lawyer for the penalty phase.
Over the objections of the Justice Administrative Commission, Ward ordered the Public Defender’s Office to join Keetley’s defense.
But that office appears to want no part of the 61/2-year-old case.
In a May hearing, Assistant Public Defender Jennifer Spradley asked Ward to reconsider. She reiterated the argument that since Goudie had technically been privately retained, Keetley was not entitled to a publicly funded defense.
Goudie responded that she was initially hired by Paul Carr to assist with depositions of some of the case’s less important witnesses.
“He at all times was going to be the main attorney on this case,” Goudie said.
As time went on, though, she took on more of the burden of both arguing Keetley’s innocence and fighting a possible death sentence, she said. She conducted “90 percent” of the pretrial questioning of witnesses.
“This is a voluminous case,” she said. “It’s got multiple issues. . . . It’s got ballistic issues, it’s got eyewitness identification issues. It’s got expert issues. . . . We’ve got 143 witnesses. I am incapable of both representing Mr. Keetley on the first phase in this case and the second phase.”
If forced to go it alone, Goudie said she would note throughout the trial why her representation was being ineffective, setting it up to be overturned on appeal.
“We will be put in a position where potentially this case will be tried twice and cost the taxpayers triple the amount of money that it’s already cost,” she said.
If another qualified lawyer did not agree to assist Keetley’s defense, Goudie threatened to withdraw. That would force the Public Defender’s Office to take the case.
Ward, noting the U.S. Supreme Court’s admonition that “death cases are different,” refused to relieve the Public Defender’s Office.
That office is now appealing Ward’s decision to the 2nd District Court of Appeal.
Keetley, if convicted, says he wants to go to death row.
Sometimes, felons make such demands because they can’t imagine life in prison.
Keetley has a different view.
He has heard that organizations like the Innocence Project take up the cause of people on death row.
He finds comfort in the idea of more lawyers.
Information from: Tampa Bay Times (St. Petersburg, Fla.), http://www.tampabay.com.