One hour of deliberation ends with guilty verdict against ex-student in FIU on-campus stabbing

 

dovalle@MiamiHerald.com

Ex-Florida International University student Quentin Wyche never shied away from admitting he fatally stabbed an unarmed school football player during a confrontation on campus in March 2010. But the question, for jurors, was whether he was justified in using deadly force.

Three years later, the answer was a resounding no.

A jury deliberated just one hour Wednesday to convict Wyche, 25, of second-degree murder with a deadly weapon. Immediately handcuffed and jailed, Wyche faces up to life in prison.

Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Miguel de la O will sentence Wyche in the coming months for killing the popular tailback Kendall Berry outside the campus recreation center.

The verdict stunned Mellisscia Spillman, Berry’s mother, who wiped trickling tears from her cheek and hugged each member of the prosecution team.

“It’s just unbelievable to hear,” Spillman said. “It means a lot. It was just a long time coming, but we made it. Justice was served. The jury did a great job.”

“Kendall was just a big-hearted person. Everyone loved him. I wish Quentin would have gotten to have known him. He would have loved him, too.”

Wyche’s trial concluded after only two days of testimony. Wyche chose not to testify in his own defense.

For Miami-Dade prosecutors, the case was a difficult one because of Florida’s controversial Stand Your Ground law, which eliminated a citizen’s duty to retreat in using deadly force to counter a threat of “great bodily harm” or death.

The law came under intense scrutiny when George Zimmerman was acquitted in July of fatally shooting teen Trayvon Martin, who was unarmed, in a confrontation in Sanford. He claimed self-defense and jurors, in a controversial verdict, agreed.

In Wyche’s case, prosecutors addressed the law directly during closing arguments.

“What the law does not say is if someone is going to punch you in the face, you can stab them in the chest,” prosecutor Ray Araujo said during closing arguments Wednesday.

Defense lawyer David Peckins shot back that Wyche tried to retreat but was pursued as Berry and a group of more than a dozen FIU football players bore down on him: “He tried to get away, but they chased him down.”

He said the football players posed a lethal threat, and at least one witness said Berry threw a punch.

“Football is a violent game. They’re trained to be physical and there’s nothing wrong with that, but not when they’re picking fights with people,” Peckins told jurors.

At the time, Berry’s slaying shocked the FIU campus, and prompted a scathing internal report blasting the school’s own delay in notifying students about the killing.

The popular tailback had led the team in touchdowns the season before his death. Wyche had been a walk-on football player on the team.

Tension between Berry and the defendant began when Wyche, earlier that day, smashed or threw a cookie in the face of the football player’s girlfriend, Regina Johnson. She told Berry, who gathered some teammates and went to the recreation center to confront Wyche as he left an intramural basketball game

“He acted physically. He acted violently. He had a cookie in her hand he smashed it into her face,” Araujo said. “That tells you a little something about the defendant.”

Peckins said Johnson, who did not testify, swung at Wyche first.

“Who is responsible for this tragedy?” Peckins said. “Maybe they should look at Regina Johnson for getting her boyfriend involved in a minor disagreement.”

Scrums broke out in front of the rec center. Wyche ran away, but then re-engaged Berry, retrieving a pair of scissors from his backpack, said one key witness, former FIU student Chidinma Orj.

During her initial testimony, the state did not ask Orj if Wyche muttered anything as he fetched the scissors from the bag. On Wednesday, prosecutors Araujo and Christine Zahralban called her back and, in a key point for the government’s case, she repeated what she initially told detectives.

“I’m gonna get him. I’m gonna get him. I’m gonna kill him,” Orj recalled Wyche saying just moments before thrusting the scissors into Berry’s chest.

Wyche also taunted Berry’s friends as the young man crumpled to the ground, mortally wounded.

“‘That’s what you get for messing with me,’” Araujo repeated, adding: “Those are not the words of someone who is in fear ... Those the words of a murderer.”

Wyche ran away from the scene, but later surrendered to police. He had been free on bond before Wednesday night’s verdict.

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