Beyond a reasonable doubt: The Curtis Shuler case
May 10, 2012 1 Comment
Curtis Shuler was 16 years old when he was charged with a murder that occurred on April 26th of 1998. He waited for five years before he was tried as in adult in Sarasota County Florida, and subsequently sentenced to life without parole.
This particular case is important for several reasons. First, it highlights the unjust and unethical application of the felony murder rule. Approximately half of the states in America allow a person to be convicted of first degree murder, even if the jury believes the person did not commit the act of murder. This is possible because in many states if a person is charged with murder and another felony, such as aggravated assault or burglary, the jury only need find the person guilty of the lesser felony offense for the individual to receive an egregious sentence, such as life without parole.
This is exactly what happened to Curtis Shuler Jr. I spent a lot of time reading through Curtis’s trial which began on March 24th of 2003 and was stunned by what happened. The prosecution presented no physical evidence that directly tied Curtis to the murder of an adult male named Larry Steven Tyler.
To provide some background on this case, Tyler was accompanied the night he was shot by another man when the two approached an intersection near the Grenelefe Resort at approximately 9-9:30 p.m. As they approached a stop sign, Tyler observed a vehicle backed into an area and parked in an odd way. He pointed it out to his friend.
The friend, John Green, testified that the following occurred: “Steve is still looking back at the car. I’m approaching the stop sign. I look towards the stop sign. As I come to a stop, don’t even know if I made it to the stop, the right-hand door comes open. Whether Steve opened it or not, I don’t know. Immediately shots fill the car, quick rapid shots. He turns around. I see this face in the window. And he turns around, shoves this person out, and says go, go, go. I floor it, turn as hard as I can and just floor it. I mean, it’s just as quick as that.”
Green testified that the face he saw belonged to a person who was black, but was unable to provide any description beyond that. He testified he did not see anyone else there, but that his friend referred to more than one person when he stated “those SOBs shot me”.
Tyler’s sister, an EMT, rode in the ambulance with Tyler and talked to him about what happened. She testified that he told her he saw three or four people when the shooting took place. When pressed on this issue, the woman admitted that she originally told police that her brother said there were two black people present and possibly a third. There was no mention of a fourth person.
Tyler died from his injuries in the very early morning hours. A detective had only been able to question him for a few minutes before he was rushed away into surgery just prior to his death.
On April 30th, 18 year old Sylathum Streeter, Victor Lester, and Adrian Moore were implicated in a spree of shootings that occurred at John’s Restaurant. Moore was Lester’s brother. Seven people were shot, including a young girl who died and her cousin who was injured. Two people died as a result. Streeter was the only person formally charged in the murders, even though the other two were present. In fact, Lester testified against Streeter at the trial in reference to fatal shooting of a 20 year old woman killed during the shooting spree.
Streeter was the one who implicated Curtis Shuler in the murder that took place on April 26th. He originally testified that Curtis came up with the idea of doing a carjacking and that he made statement to the effect that if someone was in the vehicle, he would shoot them.
There were problems with Streeter’s statement, however. The first was that he had an extensive criminal background. Prior convictions included seventeen felonies. Streeter and Lester had known each other for many years, but Curtis was not as well known to the group. Streeter claimed he only knew Curtis for less than a year before he pinned Tyler’s murder on him.
By the time Curtis went to court, Streeter gave another story during testimony. He stated that he and Lester had come up with a plan to name Curtis as the killer once the two realized that the victim had died. He testified to the following:
Attorney: And what was the plan that you guys concocted — concocted? Excuse me.
Streeter: Basically when the shit hit the fan, put it on Curt.
Streeter: Can’t say.
Attorney: When did you find out that a man had died?
Streeter: Later on at school, I believe like — I believe it was a Tuesday, if I’m not mistaken.
Attorney: Was the story concocted before you found out that Mr. Tyler had died or after?
Attorney: What was the concern?
Streeter: Basically a murder charge.
Attorney: Is that the reason you pointed it at Curtis Shuler?
Streeter: Yes, sir.
Attorney: Why not Victor Lester or Adrian Moore?
Streeter: Well, I was closer to Victor Lester.
Attorney: All right.
Streeter: Adrian Moore is his brother.
When asked why he was recanting his original statement he said, “I guess some would have called it an attack of conscience, but I can’t really say. I decided to tell the truth.”
He named Victor Lester as the real shooter and said that Curtis was not even present when any of the events transpired on April 26th.
At Curtis’s trial, a litany of witnesses testified for the defense to support that Curtis was not with Streeter and Lester on the day in question. Family and friends described the date as memorable because the local church had an appreciation celebration for a man named Elbert Cummings. The event began in church at approximately noon. It ended around 2:30 p.m. and then attendees participated in an appreciation dinner. Multiple people testified to seeing Curtis at both church and the dinner. Witnesses recounted what he was doing and some of them even remembered speaking to him.
Following the appreciation dinner, Curtis was observed at his residence. He spent the evening working on his car radio. It wasn’t just Curtis’s family and friends that testified to his alibi, however. A neighbor, Shirley Hill, described seeing Curtis and even asking him to turn his music down around 8 or 9 p.m. Other witnesses described him working on his car until approximately 1 a.m. when he returned to the house to go to bed. All of this testimony completely contradicted prior statements by Streeter and Lester about spending the entire day with Curtis.
Curtis left that evening, after the appreciation dinner, for a short time to go to Wal-Mart to get a wire for his car. This happened earlier in the evening, with confirmed sightings of Curtis before and immediately after his short trip to the store. Evidence of the date of the appreciation dinner was entered as an exhibit, confirming that it took place on April 26th.
The jury did not believe that Curtis committed the murder. Instead, the jury found him guilty on the lesser charge of burglary. The problem was that under the felony murder rule if a person is found guilty for the additional felony charge, they are penalized for murder component of the charges as well. A person can be sitting in their vehicle, acting as a getaway in a convenience store robbery and have no knowledge of what is happening in the store, and still be convicted for murder if an accomplice commits it.
The jury’s statement read as follows: “We, the jury, find as follows as to Count 2 of the charges. The defendant is guilty of attempted burglary, a lesser-included offense to that charged in the indictment, and we further find that the defendant did not carry, display, or use a firearm, and we further find that the defendant did not make an assault or battery on Larry Steven Tyler or John Steven Green.”
As a result, Curtis was sentenced to life without parole. It is also important to note that even though he was 16 at the time of the offense, the jury did not encounter a teenage boy. Instead, the jury was presented with a 21 year old man who had already been incarcerated for five years as he awaited trial.
It is unclear as to whether or not the jury even realized that upon finding him guilty on the charge of burglary, despite no physical evidence and only the recanted eyewitness testimony of another man involved in the crime, that he would receive a life without parole sentence.
Melissa Shuler became acquainted with Curtis while he was in prison. The two met and eventually married. Melissa has been advocating for her husband diligently in an attempt to raise awareness about the injustice that occurred when he was sentenced to life without parole. She visits him every weekend and describes him as her “best friend and soul mate.”
I asked Melissa what compels her to fight for Curtis and she responded with the following: “Other than the fact that I believe he was wrongfully convicted by the state of Florida and he was robbed of his youth. I see a person, a man who has something to offer the world. I believe that everyone should have a second chance. But I ultimately am fighting for him because our son needs his father here with us.”
Melissa has approached her advocacy work from a number of angles. She utilizes social media sites to spread the word and started a petition on change.org. The link to the petition is here. She has written letters to everyone from the governor, the president, and organizations such as the ACLU and NAACP.
She described the challenges of advocating for a man who was convicted and sentenced to life without parole as a juvenile. She indicated that one obstacle is that Curtis is black and the victim was white. Another is that the case happened 14 years ago. It is also hard to find any funding to further advocacy efforts such as this one. “No one wants to really get involved until it happens to them,” Melissa explained.
In the prison setting Curtis is a peer facilitator for the Horizon Dorm. He teaches art and bible studies. Curtis especially enjoys art and music. He is a phenomenal artist as well. His work can be found at www.shulerpublications.webs.com.
Prior appeals for Curtis have been denied, but some are still pending. Melissa wants people to know the following:
He was railroaded by the state of Florida, he was unjustly convicted, he was acquitted of all the elements of the crime so therefore he couldn’t be held culpable for the crime itself. He wasn’t convicted of one violent act in reference to the crime. He is confident that he will be released one day pending a just review of his case and that he is not a murderer as clearly demonstrated by the jury’s verdict. He loves life, the thought of life, people, and can’t wait to experience it. He has embraced my humanity, my strengths and weaknesses, as should other people. The way that I think that other people should embrace their humanity. We should all have a common bond in the fight towards justice and equality. The judicial system is not perfect but there is room to correct a situation that is unjust.
You can help Curtis by signing his petition. Melissa is in the process of finalizing plans for an event she is hosting on May 19th at noon. If you would like to get involved in the event or contact Melissa regarding it she may be reached on Facebook. She would like to find other people who have loved ones who are in a similar situation as Curtis in that they were sentenced to life without parole as juveniles.
Curtis also enjoys hearing from people and receiving letters of support.
Curtis Shuler Jr. #H07645
Tomoka Correctional Institute
Daytona Beach, FL 32124