LIVE BLOG: Defense resumes case in Simpkins murder trial

Corey Perrine/Staff 
 Shane Simpkins and his defense attorney, Steven Smith look on as the third witness is called by prosecutors Wednesday, March13, 2013 at the Lee County Justice Center in Fort Myers, Fla. Shane Simpkins is charged with second-degree murder in the 2011 murder of 64-year-old Estero resident Mary Ann Zarb. Today marked the second day of the trial.

Photo by COREY PERRINE, Naples Daily News // Buy this photo

Corey Perrine/Staff Shane Simpkins and his defense attorney, Steven Smith look on as the third witness is called by prosecutors Wednesday, March13, 2013 at the Lee County Justice Center in Fort Myers, Fla. Shane Simpkins is charged with second-degree murder in the 2011 murder of 64-year-old Estero resident Mary Ann Zarb. Today marked the second day of the trial.

Video from NBC-2

FORT MYERS — Shane Simpkins proved one thing beyond a reasonable doubt Thursday: he’s no Clarence Darrow.

Simpkins, on trial for second-degree murder in the April 2011 death of Estero resident Mary Ann Zarb, represented himself for part of the testimony Thursday, stumbling through questioning of a close friend and a motion to acquit. The 26-year-old, who prosecutors say strangled Zarb and cashed $25,600 of her checks, later chose to retain his counsel and opened his defense in the third day of the trial, which could wrap Friday.

Facing a life sentence, Simpkins told a judge he knew the case best and had gained legal experience while working in a law library during two prison stints.

“I wouldn’t have to continually get disrespected (by my lawyer) for no apparent reason,” Simpkins told Lee Senior Circuit Judge Thomas Reese. Simpkins and his lawyer, Steven Smith, have been at odds during various points of the trial.

Reese strongly cautioned Simpkins against representing himself, but he ultimately found Simpkins has a constitutional right to self-representation.

Yet during cross-examination of state witness Nicole Durden, a longtime friend of Simpkins’ who saw him in the days after the killing, Simpkins often requested sidebars with Reese as prosecutors objected to his questioning. When the state rested its case, Simpkins made a futile motion for judgment of acquittal, appearing not to understand the procedural aspects of the motion.

After a lunch break, Simpkins brought back his lawyer, who will stick with the case through the end.

Simpkins’ switch came on a day prosecutors revealed damaging evidence that Simpkins tried to coerce Durden earlier this week in a phone call and letter from jail. During the call, made Sunday and played in court Thursday, Simpkins asked Durden, “If I write you a letter and tell you what to say, will you?” Simpkins later added, “I promise I won’t get you in trouble ... It ain’t nothin’ bad or nothin’ like that.”

In the letter, written on lined paper in cursive handwriting, Simpkins tells Durden to say that Christopher Neuberger, a co-defendant in the case, threatened to kill her.

“I can’t handle getting 2 life sentences and I don’t think my dad can either,” Simpkins writes. “Remember that I’m the guy that used to buy you whatever you wanted.”

Durden’s testimony, which lasted all morning, revealed little that hadn’t already been aired about the days before and after the killing. She corroborated much of the testimony from other witnesses: that Simpkins had $20,000 in a briefcase, went on a small shopping spree with the cash and lied about Zarb’s whereabouts after the alleged murder.

With Durden off the stand and Smith back leading the defense, Simpkins’ defense began.

Michael Warren, an associate anthropology professor at the University of Florida and director of the C.A. Pound Human Identification Laboratory, said he couldn’t definitively say Zarb had been strangled based on his analysis of Zarb’s neck bones and cartilage.

“There’s no direct evidence in the bones of strangulation, although you could be manually strangled and not damage any of these tissues,” Warren said.

Warren acknowledged it’s not his area of expertise to determine manner or cause of death.

Simpkins’ defense continues Friday, with Neuberger, who pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in the case and crabbily testified Wednesday against Simpkins, expected to be recalled. The six-person jury will likely begin deliberations late Friday.

Simpkins faces life in prison if convicted. He’s also charged with kidnapping, unarmed burglary and larceny between $20,000 and $100,000.

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