Jury convicts driver in St. Pete police chase death
Frank Roberto Jr. took the witness stand in his own defense this week, explaining why he sped from St. Petersburg police last year, eventually wrecking his car and killing his passenger: The passenger threatened to shoot him if he stopped. The jury didn't believe it. After deliberating for less than two hours, Pinellas County jurors on Thursday found Roberto, 41, guilty of vehicular homicide and fleeing and eluding. Circuit Judge Michael Andrews sentenced Roberto to 30 years in prison, the punishment requested by prosecutors. On Jan. 10, 2012, while police were pursuing him, Roberto wrecked his mother's 1996 Kia Sofia, killing passenger Kenneth Davis Jr., 29, at 49th Street and Sixth Avenue North. Authorities were interested in Davis, not Roberto, because of Davis's involvement in a purse snatching four days before the pursuit. Roberto testified that once he saw the police lights and heard the sirens, he tried pulling over. That's when Davis produced a gun and threatened him, Roberto testified. “He said, 'Don't stop, don't stop. They're coming for me,' ” Roberto testified. Roberto said Davis then reached over and grabbed the steering wheel, forcing Roberto back into a faster lane of traffic. Assistant State Attorney Holly Grissinger attacked Roberto's testimony, saying the defendant listened to all the officers who took the witness stand, to make sure his gun-defense dovetailed with their testimony, before he took the stand himself. “No one saw a gun; no one found a gun,” Grissinger told jurors. “This gun magically appeared. ... I guess it magically disappeared at the scene because nobody found it.” She also noted that Roberto said nothing of a gun immediately after the wreck — not to a paramedic who treated him, not to a police officer who spoke with him at the hospital, not to the police who arrested him a few weeks after the wreck. “A reasonable person is going to be jumping up and down yelling, “He had a gun. He had a gun. He had a gun,” Grissinger said. Much as Roberto's efforts to sway the jury failed, a tear-filled apology to Davis' family apparently failed to persuade Andrews to hand down a punishment at the bottom of the state's sentencing guidelines, or 12.9 years in prison. Roberto told Davis' family that, although he knew Davis only for a few days, he was trying to direct him away from some of the bad choices Roberto had made as a young man. By the time Roberto was tried in Davis's death, he had a range of felony and misdemeanor convictions, for crimes such as resisting arrest, fleeing and eluding, prowling, grand theft, driving recklessly and prowling. “I hope you guys can at least forgive me some day,” Roberto said.