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The fate of a 17-year-old facing life in prison if convicted of murder rests in the hands of a jury.
Lawyers completed closing arguments in the murder trial of Chaz Stringer Thursday and a Hall County jury deliberated for about 30 minutes before being sent home for the day by Superior Court Judge Kathlene Gosselin. The panel was told to return to the Hall County Courthouse this morning to resume deliberations.
Stringer was 15 when he was charged as an adult in the June 8, 2006, shooting death of Victor "Charlie" De La Rosa in an attempted armed robbery of Garcia’s Restaurant on Athens Street. The teen confessed to shooting the 29-year-old restaurant employee in an interview with police, but has since recanted his confession, saying it was made to cover for an older friend.
Stringer nervously took the witness stand Thursday morning to explain why he admitted to the shooting. He looked straight ahead at his lawyer and made little eye contact with the jury.
The defendant said he took the rap to cover for a friend named J.J. Watson, a reputed gang member who Stringer claims is the real killer.
"Well, I know that was the wrong thing to do," Stringer said. "Looking back, I realize it was stupid."
Stringer said he decided to cover for Watson after being brought in for questioning by Gainesville Police Investigator Kevin Gaddis. Watson, he said, was an adult who had prior run-ins with the law.
"I know how gangs work," Stringer said. "If an older person gets in trouble like that, a younger person is supposed to take up for him, ‘cuz he’ll get lighter punishment."
During the police interview, Stringer told the detective "I did it," and disclosed numerous details of the shooting. He expressed surprise when he was told that De La Rosa had died.
"I thought the man only got shot in the hand," Stringer testified. "I didn’t know he was dead until afterward. That’s why I told the detective what I did."
Stringer testified that he heard the details of the shooting from Watson at Watson’s Tulip Drive home. He said he was caught by a sheriff’s deputy sneaking out the back door of the house because he already had an outstanding juvenile probation warrant.
"I was scared," Stringer said. "I panicked. I knew I had already run away from home, and he had just shot somebody. I walked out the back door."
Stringer said he was walking with a teenage friend when he heard the gunshot. That friend, East Hall High School student Detrick Watson, testified to the same on Wednesday.
Defense attorney Donna Lockwood asked Stringer directly, "On June 8, 2006, did you commit felony murder?"
"No, ma’am," Stringer replied, shaking his head.
Under cross-examination by Assistant District Attorney Juliet Aldridge, Stringer acknowledged that he told his mother between his first and second police interview that he knew he was facing serious prison time, yet did not tell the detective anyone else was involved when given several opportunities.
Stringer also acknowledged that he told no one except his attorney about his alleged alibi.
The defendant said the confession was a mistake.
"I realize what I did was wrong, I really apologize," Stringer said. "(De La Rosa’s) family deserves to know what really happened. I did not kill this man. I should not go to prison for something I did not do. That’s why I’m telling you this today."
During closing arguments, defense attorney Brian Steel told the jury that Stringer’s confession was in conflict with the evidence in the case. Steel pointed to hairs taken from a discarded shirt and "doo-rag" seized by police that did not match the hairs of his client. He also noted that Stringer was right-handed but the shooter reportedly held the gun in his left hand.
"Chaz Stringer’s statement to law enforcement is a lie," Steel said.
Prosecutor Aldridge told the jury in her closing that "the defendant confessed to the crime, gave all the details, and the evidence corroborates it."
Aldridge maintained that the teenage friend who provided an alibi for Stringer in his testimony Wednesday was asked to do so by the defendant.
"People don’t lie to get themselves in trouble," Aldridge said, "They lie to get themselves out of trouble."
Aldridge noted that the defense could have called J.J. Watson to testify.
"They want to impugne the character of someone who’s not here to defend himself," Aldridge said. "J.J. Watson did not do this. The person who did this is sitting right there, and he told police exactly how he did this."