Another Palm Beach County jury will study the gruesome death of Carlos Parnell Lopez — a nearly 5-foot-long, thin steel rod was driven through the 18-year-old's skull on the night of June 23, 2007.
The case is set for a second trial beginning Aug. 19 because the 4th District Court of Appeal in June 2012 tossed Patrick James "P.J." Melehan's conviction on manslaughter and burglary with an assault or battery charges.
"My client maintains he's been sitting in prison for six years as an innocent man," defense attorney Marc Shiner said of Melehan, 25, formerly of Jupiter.
The main argument then and now: It's a case based on circumstantial evidence, because there's no proof the defendant touched or used the rod that killed Lopez, of Jupiter Farms. DNA ruled out Melehan and apparently hasn't been used to possibly identify other suspects.
Not in dispute is that the L-shaped rod with blunt ends punctured the victim's head and he died six days later.
"There's never been an explanation about how it happened," said Jason Weiss, one of Melehan's former attorneys. None of the state's 33 witnesses at the first trial in September and October 2009 had an answer.
The State Attorney's Office does not comment on pending cases. But court records provide a clear narrative for the tragedy and the prosecution:
It begins with Lopez driving his Dodge pickup truck to visit a friend at a home in Jupiter. Along the way, he passed by a Cheyenne Street house shared by Melehan and some roommates. Lopez and some of Melehan's buddies in the front yard exchanged heated words.
Lopez had a history of "ongoing problems" with one of the friends, who was not in the yard at the time. Lopez threatened to shoot or kill some of those gathered, according to the appellate court opinion. Shiner said witnesses saw Lopez wave a gun, but police never found it.
Lopez drove off and returned 15 minutes later. This time an angry Melehan and two friends walked toward the truck. After another "verbal confrontation," Melehan hit the truck with his fist, jumped on the moving vehicle's running board and punched at Lopez by reaching through the driver's window, records show.
After Melehan jumped off, the truck moved in a circular motion through the Pennock Lane and Center Street intersection and eventually rolled to a stop. First responders found Lopez impaled by the metal rod, with part of it protruding out the driver's window.
Rescuers removed the front windshield and cut the rod before the driver's side door could be opened to get Lopez out of the truck. Jupiter police arrested Melehan two days later.
At the first trial, several state witnesses testified Melehan was the only person to hit Lopez while he drove and he was the last person to have contact with the victim before he was found impaled.
"There was evidence that Melehan fled the scene and later made statements that he had been in a fight … and that he thought he killed somebody," the appellate court wrote.
Jurors disagreed with a second-degree murder charge, but found Melehan guilty of both manslaughter and the burglary count, for striking Lopez through the window.
Circuit Judge Lucy Chernow Brown imposed prison sentences of 15 and 25 years, to run concurrently, on the man described by relatives as having no violent tendencies.
But the appellate court, in a lengthy opinion, overturned the verdict and punishment. The reason: Brown should have granted defense requests for a mistrial at two points during the trial.
The defense challenged Brown's decision to allow into evidence a deposition from witness Austin Scafidi. That testimony included Scafidi's statement that he observed Melehan pick up "something off the ground and in a javelin form throw it towards the car," referring to Lopez's pickup, accotding to the opinion.
At the trial, Scafidi testified he didn't remember the incident, but he acknowledged his deposition statements about the javelin toss and Melehan punching Lopez.
The defense argued that allowing the jury to hear Scafidi's prior statements violated Melehan's right to confront witnesses — since Scafidi claimed memory loss he couldn't be cross-examined about the javelin description.
Judge Brown refused to declare a mistrial, but agreed to tell the jury to disregard Scafidi's deposition after conceding it should have been deemed inadmissible.
But Melehan's chances of a fair trial were spoiled because these "curative" instructions to jurors came two days after Scafidi testified, the appellate court ruled. The order to disregard Scafidi couldn't "unring the bell" and denying a mistrial was "an abuse of discretion" by Brown, according to the opinion.
"Absent that testimony coming in, I think it will be a different trial," Weiss predicts.
The appellate court also agreed with the defense's position that a mistrial should have been declared because the officer who arrested Melehan, when prompted by the prosecutor, testified Melehan didn't make any statements.
It's a violation to comment on an individual's right to remain silent. Also at the trial, Melehan didn't take the witness stand.
The jury at Melehan's upcoming trial won't have to wonder about the defendant's silence.
"He'll definitely testify," Shiner said.
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