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Disruptive murder suspect may not be in Pinellas court for verdict

CLEARWATER — When a verdict is announced today in the first-degree murder trial of John Hill, he will be lucky if the judge allows him to hear it in person.

For two days, Hill, 48, had been escorted in and out of the courtroom after he repeatedly interrupted a prosecutor and his own defense attorney — often while on the witness stand himself — with what Circuit Judge Chris Helinger called “inane jibberish.” Hill interrupted the judge, too.

“I object,” Hill said time and time again, when something was said that he didn’t like, even though the expression is reserved for attorneys.

Another: “May I approach the bench?”

“Call the FBI,” Hill shouted Tuesday when Assistant State Attorney Michael Marr approached him, as he sat at the witness stand, with the 13 1⁄2-inch butcher knife prosecutors say Hill plunged into his lover, Charles Longboat, 29 times on May 28, 2009, in the driveway of the home they shared at 750 65th St. in South Pasadena.

“This is a staged show,” Hill cried out as he was escorted out of the courtroom by bailiffs in front of the jury.

All told Tuesday, Hill disrupted the proceedings 10 times, eight of them in front of the jury, Helinger noted.

Today, jurors are expected to decide whether Hill is guilty of first-degree murder, second-degree murder, or manslaughter — or not guilty of anything. The trial began last week.

Prosecutors said Hill killed Longboat, his lover of 23 years, after Longboat balked at the notion the two take a trip to the Zion National Park in Utah, bringing with them some gold Hill claimed he had acquired with some money he inherited.

Longboat didn’t want to go because he had a job with the state Department of Health, and he had his elderly mother to look after.

Before the stabbing, Hill called 911, and said, “Please come as fast as you can ’cause this is going to be bad,” prosecutors said. At various points he identified himself as Jesus Christ and encouraged authorities to kill him following the stabbing.

After Hill’s repeated outbursts Tuesday, there was some discussion as to what to do as Helinger balanced her obligation to maintain order in her courtroom, while ensuring Hill’s rights to due process.

Marr, the prosecutor, suggested Hill be strapped with an electric stun belt so when he verbally stepped out of bounds, he would receive a shock.

But after some research, Helinger realized she had three options: physically gag Hill, have him view and listen to the proceedings from the courtroom next door; or cite him for contempt of court each time he refused to answer a question. She had him moved to the next courtroom.

On the stand, Hill said he was receiving disability benefits for a bipolar condition when he collected $598,000 in life insurance benefits upon his mother’s death in 2007. Anticipating the stock market crash in 2008, he decided to purchase gold, he testified.

He said he was in a state of sleep deprivation at the time of the fatal stabbing. And while he couldn’t remember the incident in its entirety, there were seven to eight flashes in his mind, and in one of them he was on his back while Longboat was straddling him, he testified.

After Hill’s repeated outbursts Tuesday, Marr asked that Hill’s testimony be stricken from the record because his behavior prevented Marr from effectively cross-examining him. Helinger obliged.

Twice on Tuesday, court psychologist Jill Poorman evaluated Hill, and, despite Hill’s statement that he “might be losing my mind,” she found him competent to proceed.

Poorman testified that after examining him the second time she felt he was intentionally acting out.

“I don’t feel he’s happy with the way this is proceeding,” Poorman testified. “He knows what the outcome is if he is convicted, and he’s feeling that’s going to happen.”

Previously, Hill had been examined by four mental health professionals, and three of them deemed him insane. But Hill decided against pursuing an insanity defense, Marr said outside court.

Those found criminally insane often are hospitalized in a secure setting, but with a chance they might be released under supervision if their mental health improves.

If the jury finds Hill guilty of first-degree murder, he has to spend the rest of his life behind bars.

As for the gold, Hill filed a lawsuit to claim ownership of it, but it was dismissed as a judge ruled it belonged to Longboat’s estate, said Lisa A. Hoppe, an attorney for Longboat’s mother.

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