Friday, Apr 18, 2014
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Man guilty as principal to robbery

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BROOKSVILLE - Following three hours of deliberation, six jurors found James Michael Rhea, 25, guilty of principal to a robbery with a firearm.

Jurors ruled Rhea did not himself carry a gun on June 11, 2012, when he drove Travis Harscher and Jonathan Ruane to a rural area south of Powell Road, where Ruane was beaten, robbed and left in the woods.

Rhea elected not to speak in his own defense, leaving a recorded interview between Travis Harscher and Hernando County Sheriff's Detective Randy Williamson as the defense's only evidence.

After the state rested on Tuesday afternoon, defense attorney Lisa Yeager urged jurors to consider that Rhea's presence at the robbery didn't mean he knew what was about to transpire.

"The fact that he was there is not enough," Yeager said, adding that Rhea wasn't charges as an accessory after the fact, but a principal to the crime.

Harscher was a common topic of conversation during the trial, and he testified as a state witness. Yeager told jurors that Harscher's inconsistent testimony with law enforcement after his arrest painted himself in a more positive light with each version than Rhea, who she maintained was just giving a friend a ride.

"Ladies and gentlemen, his (Harscher's) testimony is just unreliable, at best," Yeager said during closing arguments.

During closing, Lewis said cellphone records show Rhea's numerous phone calls from the night of June 11, 2012, "fits almost exactly with the time of the robbery," and that Rhea was speaking with the two unidentified men who gave the victim, Ruane, a "vicious beat down."

Lewis said that when sheriff's detectives arrived to arrest Rhea for a robbery case, Rhea said he didn't rob anybody, just gave a guy a ride.

"If you are being arrested for a crime you did not commit, are you really going to say 'I just gave that guy a ride?'" Lewis said.

"I suggest to you that statement alone shows the defendant knows exactly why Detective Williamson is there, exactly why he is being arrested," Lewis continued.

During the defense's closing statement, Yeager said at first glance some might believe Rhea to be involved with the robbery.

Yeager said, however, small inconsistencies in Harscher's version of the robbery, such as who was sitting where in Rhea's car, added up in an effort to save his own fate.

Around just before 3 p.m., jurors sent a message to Judge Daniel Merritt Jr. that they wanted to re-hear the audio testimony of Ruane, who testified on Tuesday. Shortly after hearing the audio, jurors returned the verdict.

Rhea will be sentenced on Aug. 1 and is facing a minimum mandatory of 10 years and up to life in prison.

wbiddlecombe@hernandotoday .com

(352) 544-5283

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