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Are Mordenti's own words the key?

Having heard a tape, the jury deliberates the man's murder trial.

By TOM ZUCCO, Times Staff Writer
Published May 17, 2005

TAMPA - The words on the tape player were easy to hear. What they meant was another matter.

"Don't worry; you didn't do anything. They can't implicate you. Volunteer no information. Play cool."

Hillsborough Assistant State Attorney Scott Harmon clicked the off button. "Does that," he asked the jury, "sound like a patsy?"

But a patsy is exactly what defense attorney Martin McClain says Michael Mordenti is.

It was that taped phone conversation Mordenti had with his ex-wife, while homicide detectives listened in, that Harmon drove home Monday in his closing arguments during Mordenti's murder trial.

There were other things, Harmon said, that pointed to the former St. Petersburg used car dealer. Details about the crime that only Mordenti could have known. And a knife Mordenti owned that may have been a murder weapon.

But it was Mordenti's own voice, Harmon said, that was most telling.

"He is guilty," Harmon said, "and this phone call proves it."

Mordenti was convicted of being the triggerman in the 1989 murder of Thelma Royston at her Odessa ranch. He spent 14 years on death row before the Florida Supreme Court granted him a new trial, ruling that prosecutors at his 1991 trial withheld evidence. His retrial began last week in Hillsborough Circuit Court.

In the months after the murder, Gail Milligan, Mordenti's ex-wife, admitted being a part of the murder-for-hire plot but only as an intermediary. In exchange for immunity, she named Thelma Royston's husband, Larry, as the mastermind.

And Michael Mordenti, her ex-husband, as the killer.

After putting Mordenti in contact with Larry Royston, prosecutors said, Milligan was "out of the loop" when the crime was committed.

But, McClain said, Milligan had the time and the motive to set up her ex-husband. McClain painted Milligan as a woman who had mounting debts in 1989 and who saw her ex-husband as a convenient target for investigators.

The jury in Mordenti's 1991 trial deliberated for an hour and a half before finding him guilty. This time, the jury deliberated eight hours Monday before ending at 7:30 p.m. They will continue deliberations today.

If convicted, Mordenti could face execution.

Lost in the swirl of accusations is the victim, Harmon reminded the jury. He showed them a photo of Thelma Royston at Epcot Center.

"The ultimate tragedy," he said, "is that so many people knew about this, and nobody protected her."

[Last modified May 17, 2005, 01:36:07]

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