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Stunning verdict in Leigh Jewelers robbery retrial

Photo: Jamie Grant represented himself at trial.

An Indian River County jury Friday returned a stunning not-guilty verdict for a man who was convicted of trying seven years ago to rob Leigh Jewelers on Ocean Drive.

Jamie Grant, who represented himself at trial, was acquitted on all charges related to the 2010 attempted robbery of the island jeweler. He walked away from the Vero Beach courthouse last week with his grandmother and a friend at his side as a free man.

His case was retried because of a judicial misstep. In response to an appeal Grant filed from prison, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 2016 that Judge Robert Pegg erred in his instructions to the original jury by not allowing discussion about possible lesser charges, such as theft.

It also found that the stipulated 10-year minimum incorporated into Grant’s 15-year prison sentence was incorrect since the state failed to prove Grant used a firearm in the commission of a crime. At the time Grant was represented by a public defender.

Grant served five years in prison before he was released last year on a $100,000 bond pending the new trial. He then lived under house arrest with a GPS anklet while preparing for his second trial.

His main argument for acquittal was that the Vero Beach Police stopped him and obtained evidence against him illegally on the day of the attempted robbery, and that he was convicted on the basis of that tainted evidence.

“The state is going to show you a lot of evidence, mostly circumstantial, but they will probably convince you I was up to something that day,” Grant said in his opening statement. “What I want you to understand is every piece of evidence that the state is going to show you was illegally obtained.”

On Nov. 17, 2010, around 3:30 p.m., the owners of the Ocean Drive jewelry store called police to report an attempted robbery. They said a man wearing a mask, gloves and a hooded sweatshirt had pulled aggressively on their door handle trying to get inside.

When staff refused to unlock the store, the suspect fled on foot before getting into a silver Toyota Corolla and speeding away.

“It shakes the ground you stand on,” testified store owner Mark Leigh as he recounted the incident and the fear he felt for his family and employees inside.

Detectives began following Grant, who was driving a silver Toyota Corolla, within minutes of a “be on the lookout” or BOLO Alert going out over the radio. They tracked him crossing the Merrill Barber Bridge and eventually stopped him for speeding near the intersection of 37th Street and U.S. 1.

They found a gun, a mask, a hooded sweatshirt, gloves and an empty Crown Royal bag in the car.

Grant, who did not testify on his own behalf during his trial last week, prepared an emotional, apologetic defense that touched on issues of race and policing, the fairness of the U.S. justice system, forgiveness and redemption. He cried during his closing arguments as he struggled to tell his story.

“I’m not standing here telling you that I’m 100 percent innocent, what I’m telling you is justice was already done,” Grant told the jury. “All I’m trying to do here is redeem myself, if, if the state would let me.”

Prosecutor Bill Long repeatedly objected to the defendant’s line of questioning and statements throughout the two days of testimony. He repeatedly argued against Grant’s notion that police work in the case was done outside the realm of the law. 

“We proceeded on a case where we believed the evidence was sufficient to sustain a guilty verdict at trial, just as it was the first time around,” Long said after the acquittal on Friday. “I won’t speculate whether the apologies and crying and other behavior affected the jury, but that is a difference from the previous case.”

Senior Judge Larry Schack often upheld the prosecutor’s objections at the four-day trial, warning Grant he could not ask the jury for a pardon or directly appeal to their emotions. Questioning needs to focus on the facts and evidence of the case, he said.

Even so, there was no erasing what had already been spoken out loud.

During the trial, Grant talked about how he was laid-off from his job as a truck driver at the time of the attempted robbery. When he was supposed to be questioning the owner of the store, he instead apologized to the witness for what happened, saying there was no intention of violence – but never directly admitted to the attempted robbery. The two hadn’t had an opportunity to speak face-to-face before, Grant said in front of the jury.

Grant implored the panel of six jurors to look at the “big picture.”

“Yes, there is a lot of damning evidence against me, but there are also things that don’t add up,” he said.

No witnesses identified Grant as the man behind the mask at the jewelry store and the descriptions given of the suspect varied. The BOLO alert told police to look for a silver Corolla being driven by two African-American men, but Grant is light skinned, of mixed race and was traveling alone when stopped.

“That’s not proving the case beyond reasonable doubt,” Grant explained. “We don’t condemn people for what we think might have happened, or what could have happened.”

The Vero Beach Police Department detective who pulled Grant over for allegedly speeding testified that he did not use a radar gun nor did he have a car calibrated to detect traffic speed. Instead, he claimed he clocked Grant driving over the limit using the speed of his own unmarked detective car.

That is not how justice is served in the United States, Grant told the jury.

Grant also said a statement being used against him at trial was given before he had been read his Miranda rights.

Authorities claim Grant apologized at the scene and said, “I’m sorry. I don’t usually do this type of thing,” but in a motion trying to suppress that evidence, Grant denied such a conversation occurred.

When the statement was recounted for the jury last week the defendant grilled the detective on the stand. 

Does an individual have the right to remain silent, he asked the officer who was under oath. Does he have a right to know that any statement can be used against him?

Was the defendant told that when he was pulled from the car? Grant asked.  Is this statement not now being used against him in a court of law?

The detective had no choice but to answer, yes.

Placing the gun, the mask, the hoodie, and the Crown Royal bag on display, Long reminded the jury during his closing argument to use common sense, not emotion, when exercising the power to convict. Follow the law and hold the prosecution to its burden of proof, he said.

The defendant’s statements about being afraid, his apology to the store owner, the tears – none of that should be of concern, the prosecutor said.  “To allow feelings of sympathy to affect your decision on whether I proved this case beyond a reasonable doubt would be a miscarriage of justice.”

“I’m handing [this case] to you,” Long said. “You have control. Your job is to decide what happened.”