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A spat between Quentin Wyche and Regina Johnson, Kendall Berry’s girlfriend, earlier in the day March 25, 2010, led to a chaotic brawl outside Florida International University’s recreation center on the Miami campus.

Berry was stabbed in the melee and died. Wyche, who had fled from the initial confrontation, was accused of stabbing him.

– Eli Witek

DeLandite Quentin Wyche, now 32, was convicted of second-degree murder in 2013. Recently released from prison, Wyche, and his mother, Wendy, have never stopped trying to overturn his conviction.

Our most recent story described the events of March 25, 2010, that led to the death of Kendall Berry, 21, as described in witness statements made to police and in testimony at trial.

This is the third part of our series: Wyche’s grounds for contesting his conviction.

Read our previous coverage online at www.beacononlinenews.com.

***

The case against Wyche in Berry’s death was riddled with conflicting witness statements.

At the heart of the trial was the question: Was it murder, or self-defense?

At a pretrial hearing, Judge Milton Hirsch, ruling on a motion to dismiss the case, said the evidence was in “equipoise” — equally supporting either of the two narratives.

In one narrative, Wyche deliberately and maliciously stabbed Berry, a star football player, in the heart. In the other, Wyche, cornered by a mob of angry young men, had been forced to protect himself.

The scales of justice, in other words, were equally balanced, in Hirsch’s opinion. He declined to dismiss the case; it would be up to the prosecution and defense to bend the story in their favor at trial.

According to Wyche and his family, Wyche’s lawyer, David Peckins, assured them the evidence would be enough to find Wyche not guilty. The witness statements and their testimony, which in many cases directly contradicted each other, would necessarily prove a reasonable doubt, the family recalls Peckins saying.

With no real understanding of the ins and outs of the legal system, the family put their faith in God, in the lawyer, and in the impossibility that the Quentin Wyche they knew could kill anyone.

Peckins would be responsible for navigating the Wyche family through the dark seas of an opaque legal system — a world of motions and hearings that operate with their own kind of internal logic.

“I just want to say to you, judge, that I believe what the family and friends have said. I also believe what Quentin has said, and just to let him know that we do forgive you, Quentin, and we know it’s hard for his family as well, and we ask for leniency.”

– Melissa Spillman, mother of Kendall Berry, speaking at Wyche’s 2013 sentencing

At trial, that navigational skill would be all-important from start to finish — from jury selection, to timely objections, to precise wording. All of it would add up to ensuring that Wyche had due process and, everyone hoped, would be coming home.

But, as soon as the trial started, Wendy Wyche, Quentin’s mother, knew something was wrong, she said.

“The lawyer, in his opening statement, he stated, ‘Yeah, he killed him,’” Wendy Wyche said. “I knew right then that Quentin would be found guilty. Why would you tell the jury that?”

At the time, she said, the family didn’t know enough of the law to object to Peckins’ strategy.

“None of it seemed right, but I didn’t know why it wasn’t right,” Wendy said.

After a four-day trial, on Sept. 11, 2013, the jury found Quentin Wyche quilty of second-degree murder.

***

Judge Miguel M. de la O denied Peckins’ post-trial motions and sentenced Wyche to 20.5 years in prison, followed by five years of probation.

Later, the judge would explain that, had it been up to him, Wyche would not have been given such a lengthy prison sentence.

“To be clear, however, this Court would not impose a 20.5 year prison sentence on Wyche were it not mandated by the sentencing guidelines,” de la O wrote. “This is not to say that the death of Berry would not, in a vacuum, justify such a sentence. It would justify a far harsher one. But this case does not exist in a vacuum; it is filled with nuance and shades of grey. Nevertheless, this Court cannot (and will not) substitute its own subjective views of the facts for the jury’s.”

Had the Wyches known more about the legal system then, immediately after the conviction, they might have asked their attorney to file a “motion for downward departure.” That would have allowed the judge to reduce the sentence.

It would be three years before Wyche was able to move to mitigate his sentence. In the meantime, he would sit in prison as the case made its way through the appellate courts.

Once avenues of appeal were exhausted, Wyche had 60 days to file a motion for downward departure, which his new lawyer, Barry Butin, did in August 2016. Two months later, the sentence was reduced to 11 years.

***

Now an expert on his own case, Wyche has assembled a dozen reasons to move that he had had “ineffective assistance of counsel.” Some of the reasons are grounds for acquittal, some would reduce the charge to manslaughter, and some would be grounds for a new trial.

They can be grouped in roughly two categories — the jury, and the witnesses. All allege that Peckins failed in his duty to provide effective counsel.

Peckins has not yet responded to The Beacon’s efforts to reach him to discuss the case.

***

Problems with the jury

Several of the grounds for acquittal involve the complicated process of instructing a jury on the legal particulars of a self-defense claim.

Wyche alleges that Peckins failed to object to or request jury instructions that clarified the rules of justifiable use of force in Florida.

These grounds highlight the peculiarities of the legal system. For instance, Peckins did not request that the jury be asked whether the force used by the defendant was deadly or non-deadly.

Although Berry’s death would seem to assure the force used had been deadly, case law says otherwise. Whether the jury understood this, for Wyche, could have meant the difference between innocence and guilt.

Deadly force is defined in Florida case law, not by the result of an action, but whether the action is likely to cause great bodily harm.

For example, Florida courts have held that pointing a gun at someone’s head is not deadly force, as the act of pointing a gun is not likely to cause great bodily harm. Discharging the gun is.

Another of Wyche’s grounds is much more simply explained. During trial, Judge de la O noticed that one of the jurors appeared to be asleep.

“Mr. Wyche, I’ll never understand what happened here. I mean, I’m not sure you all will ever understand what happened here, because everything seemed to be an aberration. Everything I’ve ever seen of you in court, everything anyone has ever said about you, I cannot understand what happened that night.”

– Judge Miguel M. de la O, the judge who presided over the September 2013 trial, in comments made in 2016, just before he reduced Quentin Wyche’s sentence from 20.5 years to 11 years

During the testimony of Chidinma Orji, the prosecution’s key witness, Judge de la O called the attorneys to a sidebar and brought their attention to a juror who appeared to have nodded off several times.

Peckins declined to excuse the juror, who, when questioned, denied being asleep.

***

Problems with witnesses

Two witnesses who gave statements to the police were not called by Peckins to testify: Toronto Smith and James Jones.

Both Smith’s and Jones’ statements to police indicated that Berry had been intending to confront Wyche that night, that Berry had initiated a fight, and that Wyche had fled.

Smith’s statement indicates Smith believed Wyche fled because he felt he was about to be attacked and, furthermore that after Wyche fled, he had been overpowered, according to Smith, by a group of five or six people.

Wyche argues that Smith’s testimony could have convinced the jury that his use of force had been justified.

Another person who never testified — and whose statement was not even admitted into court as evidence — is Regina Johnson, Berry’s girlfriend.

It was Wyche’s encounter with Johnson earlier in the day that had been the catalyst for the events that night, when Berry and Wyche met outside the recreation center.

Johnson’s statement — which both the state and defense told the court did not exist — had been given by Johnson to detectives at 2:27 a.m. on March 26, several hours after Berry’s death.

Wyche and his mother discovered the existence of the Johnson statement when reading the police records.

Johnson is clearly a key witness to the events and to Berry’s state of mind, Wyche argues in his current motion for post-conviction relief.

In her statement, Johnson contradicts herself. She first tells detectives that she and Berry had no idea Wyche would be at the recreation center that night, and that Berry only wanted to talk with him. Under further questioning, however, she said they knew he might be there, and that Berry had, indeed, wanted to confront him.

Clearly establishing who had been the initial aggressor in the confrontation between Berry and Wyche could have made the difference for the jury — and for Quentin Wyche.

If Johnson had taken the stand, Wyche argues, the defense would have had an opportunity to question these inconsistencies before the jury.

One witness who did testify, Anthony Cooper, was the author of a crucial piece of evidence that was not included in the Miami-Dade police report and therefore wasn’t introduced at trial.

Five days after Berry’s death, Cooper had filed an incident report with Florida International University’s internal police department.

Cooper, a close friend of Wyche’s, had been with him the night of March 25 and, in the ensuing altercation, suffered a hairline fracture of his nose and a ruptured rotator cuff.

The FIU police had obtained a threatening voicemail message left that night by one of the football players involved in the melee. Officers had also questioned six football players, who denied wrongdoing and involvement in any physical interaction, according to the official FIU police report.

That report contradicts statements some of the football players made to the police.

***

Perhaps the most important witness the defense did not call to testify was Quentin Wyche himself.

In his current motion, Wyche alleges that Peckins had threatened to quit if Wyche testified.

If Peckins made that threat, he did not do it on the record, although he did state at a pretrial hearing that he was considering resigning because Wyche and his family had not met their financial obligations to him.

Since his conviction, Wyche has consistently said he had wanted to testify.

“I’m just waiting for a new trial so people can hear the truth. Mr. Peckins gave me that bad advice of not testifying for some reason,” Wyche wrote in a 2014 letter to Judge de la O.

Wyche wrote that he had learned the court system is flawed and that outcomes are based on wealth, not justice.

“I know one thing — I can’t give up,” he said.

***

What’s going on now?

Wyche’s motion for post-conviction relief has been winding its way through Miami-Dade’s court system since February 2018. Three attorneys have represented Wyche in the motion — one private attorney, and two public defenders.

When The Beacon first wrote about Wyche, he had been released from prison six days earlier, and was welcomed back to DeLand with a party Aug. 4.

At that gathering, his mother urged the community to attend an evidentiary hearing scheduled for Aug. 21.

“Come down and sit in,” Wendy told the crowd. “If no one shows — they don’t do anything. The more heads the better. That way the court can’t sweep anything under the rug. Just like the Trayvon Martin case — it wouldn’t have been anything, if people weren’t looking.”

Since then, the hearing has been rescheduled multiple times.

In September, Wyche’s last public defender went into labor before a scheduled evidentiary hearing, and a new public defender had to be appointed.

The hearing was moved to Oct. 22, but the judge is leaving criminal court at the end of October, so another rescheduling was needed.

The Wyches, ready to travel to Miami for the hearing, found out about that latest postponement on Oct. 21.

Click here for the final installment of The Case of Quentin Wyche

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