St. Petersburg Times

Family's hope rests in court hearing----
A judge sets the date to hear evidence that could free Samuel Jason Derrick from death row.

Derrick and his family have maintained his innocence.

By Richard Raeke
January 11, 2004

Samuel Jason Derrick's family set aside all of Thursday for a 15-minute status conference. His mother, stepfather, sister and 2 brothers packed into the chambers of Circuit Judge Stanley Mills.

Mills merely set a date for a 3-day hearing in March to listen to new evidence in Derrick's case. But the family has its hopes pinned on the hearing.

New evidence suggests that another man has implicated himself in the murder for which Derrick was convicted.

"His family knows he didn't do it," said his sister, Carolyn Haney. She cried at the news he would be at the Land O'Lakes jail through the weekend. In the 16 years since her brother has been on death row at the Union Correctional Institution in Raiford, she has not seen him.

As the 3 bailiffs escorted Derrick out of the judge's chambers, his brothers Travis and Sam called out, "We love you, Jason."

In May 1988, a jury convicted Jason Derrick of the murder of Rama Sharma, the owner of Moon Lake General Store. Sharma, 55, was found dead behind the store on June 25, 1987. He had been stabbed 33 times. At the time of his death, Sharma had $360 in the day's receipts with him.

Sharma had bought the store 2 years earlier after working as an English teacher in England. His family had stayed there but would visit often.

Deputies arrested Derrick 6 days after the slaying.

A year later, he was given the death penalty.

Derrick, now 36, and his family have always maintained his innocence. Pasco Sheriff's detectives said he confessed, but they didn't tape it. Derrick bristles at the word "confession" and denies he ever admitted guilt.

At the trial, the detectives testified that Derrick said he threw the knife in the woods and his bloody shirt and shoes in a pond. They never found the knife, the shirt, the shoes or any physical evidence linking Derrick to the crime.

Prosecutors contend Sharma was killed around 11 p.m. But the medical examiner testified that Sharma's time of death was 6 a.m. and a high school student testified that she saw Sharma alive when she drove by the store at 2 a.m.

But prosecutors had the words of a jailhouse informant, Randall James, and Derrick's friend, David Lowry. Detectives had first suspected Lowry of killing Sharma before they arrested Derrick.

Ultimately the case came down to his word against the detectives' word, Derrick told the Times on Friday at the Pasco County Jail.

"How am I supposed to defend against that?" he asked. Derrick had a history of scrapes with the law. He had pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges of stealing mail and forging checks, and received a 3-year prison sentence for a 1985 burglary conviction. He also pleaded no contest to traffic charges of fleeing and eluding a police officer and reckless driving.

But his family and friends said he never was violent and had no history of violent crime. During the trial, prosecutors contend that Derrick stabbed Sharma during a robbery, after Sharma recognized him.

Now another man has made statements implicating himself in the murder, according to the defense team. Harry Brody and Derrick will not say who that is, but plan on releasing his name during the hearing.

On the basis of that information, Mills granted the evidentiary hearing in March 2002.

"If we have people out there who say somebody else out there has confessed to this murder, this is of more than just a passing interest to me," Mills said at the time. He also is agreeing to hear testimony about the competency of Derrick's trial lawyers.

Still, Derrick doesn't think he'll get a fair shake in Pasco County, where he believes legal reputations rest on his conviction.

Even until the moment the jury foreman read the guilty verdict in 1988, Derrick was confident he would be home in time for his son's 1st birthday. Shawn Derrick was a month old at the time of his father's arrest. Shawn will turn 17 this May 30th.

Now Derrick uses Shawn's birthday to mark the years in prison. From his cell, he thinks of daily life outside - playing basketball with Shawn or even buying a soda at the store.

Out of respect, his family members do not write about daily life in their letters to him. His mother, Victoria Salute-Marion, sticks to writing about her feelings, religion and the Bible.

"I don't talk about meals I cook or specific places I go," she said. In return, Derrick never writes her about life on death row, how he sometimes feels dehumanized behind the bars of his cell.

"You try not to let it get to you," he said. "I refuse to get to a point where people can say, "Maybe they were right about him."'

But as Derrick views the upcoming evidentiary hearing as just another step in the process, his family has faith that the system will vindicate him.

Salute-Marion said she hopes that the evidentiary hearing in March will result in a new trial for her son.

Following the initial conviction, Salute-Marion said she went into a denial that lasted six years. When she received letters from her son, she would not open them. When she finally did, a single letter would take weeks to read, one paragraph at a time.

"It's like living with a terminal illness," she said. "It was like somebody could sign a piece of paper and he'd be gone."

Derrick said he had high hopes during the direct appeals process. In 1991, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that the jury heard improper testimony and instructions during the penalty phase of the trial.

It handed the case to Judge Mills for another sentencing. In the resentencing, the jury first voted 6-6 to recommend the death penalty and sent a note to Mills about their situation.

He told the jury that their vote did not have to be unanimous and that a tie would result in life imprisonment. After further deliberation, it voted 7-5 to recommend the death sentence. Mills upheld the sentence.

Derrick appealed the second death sentence, saying Mills should have instructed the jury to recommend the life sentence without further deliberation.

In 1994, the Florida Supreme Court found Mills had ruled appropriately and upheld the death sentence.

On Thursday, Brody said that one of those jurors wrote Derrick last year and apologized for the death sentence, saying she had felt pushed by the jury foreman. She has since passed away.

Brody asked Mills for the opportunity to interview jurors during the evidentiary hearing. Mills denied the motion, saying the court has no legal standing to compel jurors to testify.

Although he would not comment on any new evidence, Brody said Thursday that he would be asking for a new trial.

"We believe our case is strong," he said.

Derrick's siblings believe it, too. Unanimously, they say that their brother will be freed from death row.

"It's not wishful thinking," said his brother, Sam.

But his mother said she can't think that way.

"I keep my thoughts straight by thinking that anything can happen in the courtroom," Salute-Marion said. Because if he isn't released from death row, she asks, "What will happen to me?"

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