Fred Grimm

Fred Grimm: Miami strip club killer insists on a kamikaze defense strategy

Former security guard Lukace Kendle is claiming self defense in fatally shooting a man outside a North Miami-Dade strip club.
Former security guard Lukace Kendle is claiming self defense in fatally shooting a man outside a North Miami-Dade strip club. Miami Herald

The table before the man who would be his own lawyer was empty.

No pen. No notes. No court documents. No arrest records. No autopsy report. No copy of the voluntary statement, since re-classified as a murder confession, that he gave to Miami-Dade police.

Lukace Kendle listened to the prosecution testimony in a perpetual fidget, pivoting back and forth on his swivel chair, fluttering his fingers as if he was practicing piano on an imaginary keyboard. His courtroom demeanor was reminiscent of dissociated characters who are sometimes seen on public transportation, so engrossed in music that they’re oblivious to the outside world — except the murder defendant wasn’t wearing ear buds.

Kendle, who was working as a security guard at a North Miami-Dade strip club in 2012, freely admitted in his opening statement on Wednesday that he had shot two club patrons in the parking lot, leaving 29-year-old Kijuan Byrd dead and Michael Smathers paralyzed. But he interspersed his narrative with language lifted from the 2005 Stand-Your-Ground expansion of Florida’s self defense law. “Having no duty to retreat, I stood my ground.” He called his unarmed victims “forward aggressors.” He said, “My actions were forced. They forced me to stand my ground.”

It’s an absurd legal strategy but that might not matter if his murder case was handled by a skilled lawyer. After all, Stand Your Ground is an absurd law, laden with elastic interpretations, that has preempted homicide cases just as egregious as these killings

But what’s unfolding in Miami-Dade Circuit Court this week is a parody of a murder trial. Here is a defendant who has twice been deemed mentally incompetent to stand trial. CNN, in an investigation of the insanely lax standards that states like Florida set for employing armed security guards, reported that a jail psychiatrist diagnosed Kendle with “impulse control disorder” and “anti-social personality disorder.” Another doctor found a “substantial likelihood” that Kendle was suffering from a mental illness. Another report placed him on an “unspecified schizophrenia spectrum.”

Apparently he has since been rehabilitated — well enough, anyway, to stand trial, which means, under our crazy system, well enough to act as his own lawyer.

It has made for a courtroom farce. Like watching a legal suicide. Since his arrest, he has fired three lawyers. He won’t allow Abe Bailey, his court-appointed stand-by counsel to sit at the defense table — won’t even talk with Bailey.

On Tuesday, he caused a ruckus with the judge when he tried to tell jurors that because he was white and his victims were black, his arrest was the result of “the George Zimmerman shooting.”

Before testimony began Wednesday, Judge Dava Tunis fairly begged Kendle to reconsider his no-lawyer stance. Instead, he sat through a string of prosecution witnesses without so much as an objection. Abe Bailey told me that at times he caught himself rocking forward, about to rise up and object. “It was so frustrating,” he said.

Kendle, squirming, incessantly tugging at his scraggly goatee, stumbled on while the judge, prosecutors, witnesses and jurors had to pretend nothing was amiss in Courtroom 6-3.

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