A judge Wednesday denied a request from the attorney for a man accused of a hate crime for shooting and killing a black man to separate the trial into two phases: one focusing on guilt and another focusing on motive.
PANAMA CITY — A judge Wednesday denied a request from the attorney for a man accused of a hate crime for shooting and killing a black man to separate the trial into two phases: one focusing on guilt and another focusing on motive.
Judge John Fishel denied attorney Mark Sims' request, ruling the testimony surrounding Walt Butler's guilt and motive would be too intertwined to separate. Sims argued testimony focusing on what prosecutors believe was Butler's motive — racism — would be too prejudicial and Butler might be convicted simply for describing Everett Gant using a racial slur.
"He's not on trial for being a racist," Sims said. "He's on trial for second-degree murder."
Butler was arrested by the Gulf County Sheriff's Office in July 2012 after he allegedly shot Gant in the face when he came to the door to confront Butler over some racist comments he'd allegedly made to a child from the Port St. Joe neighborhood earlier that day. Gant died six weeks later.
Former Sheriff Joe Nugent testified during the hearing Wednesday. He said Butler had barricaded himself in the home and was eating dinner when he entered and put Butler in handcuffs.
"He (Butler) said he didn't know what the problem was," Nugent said. "He just shot a (racial epithet)."
Prosecutor Bob Sombathy said that while testimony that might show Butler to be a racist would certainly be prejudicial, it should be allowed because he had to prove Butler targeted Gant because of his race in order to convict him of a hate crime.
"Of course it's going to be prejudicial, but the fact is that's the very issue the jury is going to have to decide," Sombathy said.
Sims also tried to have Butler's entire statement suppressed, but Fishel denied that as well. Between Sims and Sombathy, there were nine pretrial motions on Fishel's plate during the hearing.
"Let all my stuff in, and keep all his stuff out," is how Sims jokingly summarized his argument.
Sims was successful in keeping testimony from a long-time friend of Butler's out of court. The man said in a deposition Butler valued a black person's life less than a white person's.
"Our theory is, this man cared no more for shooting [Gant] than putting a dog down," Sombathy argued, referring to the man's deposition testimony.
Sims argued that was in response to a leading question. Fishel found the testimony would be too prejudicial, but he said he would allow the jury to hear testimony to establish Butler had used racial slurs in the past.
"I will caution that that does not need to become the primary focus of this trial," he said.
If convicted of second-degree murder with the hate crime enhancement, Butler could be sentenced to life in prison. The trial is set for next week in Port St. Joe.
Wednesday’s hearing was held in Bay County to accommodate the schedules of some participants.