TAMPA — Three days after Charles Waits was convicted of murdering two South Tampa teenagers, prosecutors dropped charges against the man Waits said forced him to do it.
With little explanation, the Hillsborough State Attorney’s Office released a statement Friday afternoon saying there was insufficient evidence to take Tavari Grant to trial in the slayings of Kiara Brito, 16, and her brother Jeremi in their home on June 5, 2011.
Waits claimed during the trial that he took Grant to buy marijuana from Kiara that morning and that Grant pointed a gun at him and then killed the children after Waits ran from the house. Waits initially claimed someone named Rocco had killed the teens.
The prosecution called Waits a liar during the trial and said evidence demonstrated Waits was the gunman.
Items stolen from the house were found in Grant’s house, and Grant was captured on video pawning a ring stolen from Kiara.
But Waits’ lawyer, Octavio Gomez, said Friday that the prosecution would have had a tough time proving a murder case against Grant. Gomez said he expects the prosecution still will bring charges against Grant relating to the stolen property.
Among the witnesses the prosecution hoped to call was Grant’s brother, Denzel Baker, who was jailed last month for contempt of court for refusing to cooperate. He is serving five months and 29 days on that charge.
According to court filings, Baker saw Grant and Waits leave together before the killings and then return to his house after the crime with items that were taken from the Brito home, including a Luis Vuitton bag and some marijuana.
Gomez said that without Baker’s testimony, there is no evidence that places Grant in the Brito home at the time of the killings. And Gomez said it would be “hypocritical” for the prosecution to attempt to call Waits as a witness after prosecutors called him a liar during his trial.
“I knew that that was likely to occur that they would likely drop the murder charges and try to proceed on charges of dealing in stealing property,” Gomez said. “Without testimony of Denzel Baker, his brother, they would have no way of proving those charges.”
Grant is not about to walk free, however. He was sentenced in April to 7 1/2 years in state prison on unrelated charges of attempted armed robbery.
The case was much stronger against Waits, Gomez said. In addition to Waits’ own statements in which he said he was at the house with the killer, a neighbor chased Waits’ car as he sped away from the shooting that morning. The neighbor, who exchanged gunfire with one of the occupants of the car, provided police with the license plate number.
But other than Waits, no witnesses identified Grant as being at the scene.
Tampa police met with the state attorney’s office and agreed that charges should be dropped.
But the police department is continuing to investigate, said Laura McElroy, a Tampa police spokeswoman.
“He’s still a suspect in the murders, and we still have a very active investigation,” McElroy said. “We know we’ll have time to work the case since he’ll be spending the next seven years in state prison.’’
Grant’s lawyer, public defender Charles Traina, said he couldn’t comment on why the prosecution dropped the charges or what the evidence issues might be. But he did say, “I’m happy for Tavari and his family and I think the state did the right thing.”