BROOKSVILLE – Just before the jury came back in Thursday, Penny Mecklenburg called over Hernando County Sheriff’s Sgt. Brandon Ross.
They sat together in the front row of Judge Daniel Merritt Jr.’s courtroom as a clerk read the jury’s findings – guilty of the seven charges against Michael James Anthony, including attempted felony murder.
Anthony, 37, shook his head in disbelief. The attempted murder conviction carries with it a mandatory life sentence.
The panel of four women and two men took about five hours to deliberate, review testimony and unanimously agree on their verdicts.
Anthony, 37, of Silver Springs, was accused of leading five law enforcement officers on a chase down U.S. 41 on July 3, 2011 while high on crack cocaine, and at times at speeds well over 100 mph.
The event started when Brooksville Police Sgt. Edward Serrano saw a gold Honda driving the wrong way down Broad Street, south of Jefferson Street. Serrano put on his lights and sirens and anticipated pulling the driver over near the courthouse, but Anthony kept going. Other officers joined the pursuit, and Ross was able to cause Anthony’s vehicle to spin out and come to a stop. Multiple officers were yelling for Anthony to get out of the car, and before they could arrest him, Anthony took a hit off of his crack pipe, backed up and drove away.
Ross testified on Tuesday he lost control of his car in Masaryktown after being hit by Anthony and crashed into the Daylight Donuts parking lot near Ayers Road.
Anthony continued driving south through Pasco County, where Deputy John Mecklenburg lost control of his car, hit a tree and later died from his injuries.
The chase continued for two more counties south, when Anthony crashed off of I-275 in St. Petersburg.
Jurors did not hear testimony on Mecklenburg’s crash, but were instead tasked with determining whether Anthony intentionally tried to run Ross’ car off the road.
Anthony testified in his own defense on Wednesday, telling the jury he was on a two-day crack cocaine binge when the chase began. The defendant said he thought he was in Ocala, not Brooksville, and that he had spent the prior 36 hours paranoidly chasing imaginary officers. Anthony said he never “hit Ross” or “forced him off of the road.”
During the State’s closing arguments, Prosecutor Bill Catto said Anthony “could have stopped every inch of the way down the roadway,” but instead demonstrated an “indifference” to human life by continuing to drive.
Catto said Anthony’s reckless driving could have killed Ross, and caused law enforcement to “take extreme measures to protect the public,” by using a tactic called a “PIT maneuver” to try to make him spin out.
“He kept on going until he couldn’t go anymore, and only then did he give up, turning a small insignificant incident into a major crime,” Catto said.
Catto also said Anthony’s memory was “selective,” not remembering key incidents during the heights of the chase.
“Being cracked up is not an excuse for this crime,” the prosecutor added.
Defense attorney Dean Livermore said on the morning of July 3, 2011, his client was “ashamed” that he relapsed and started using crack cocaine, scared and “suffering from paranoid hallucinations and delusions.”
Livermore said Anthony was not trying to ram into oncoming cars, but having a hard time controlling his 20-year-old car with a faulty transmission.
Anthony’s attorney agreed jurors ought to find his client guilty of reckless driving and fleeing from law enforcement, but said he should be found not guilty on the more serious charges, including attempted murder, because the State couldn’t prove Anthony intended to hurt or hit anyone. The defense maintained throughout the trial Anthony was just trying to get away from law enforcement so his family and friends wouldn’t know he relapsed.
Multiple law enforcement officers were in attendance for the verdict, including Sheriff Al Nienhuis and Col. Mike Maurer.
Because the attempted murder charge carries with it a mandatory life sentence, Judge Daniel Merritt Jr. sentenced Anthony after the verdict was read and the jury dismissed.
Anthony also was convicted of aggravated fleeing or attempting to elude a law enforcement officer with injury or damage, attempted second-degree murder, aggravated battery on a law enforcement officer with a deadly weapon, leaving the scene of an accident with injuries, felony fleeing or attempting to elude a law enforcement officer and reckless driving.
Anthony will be held at the Pasco County Jail until his first-degree murder trial starts in February 2014.