Soon after the killings of Boynton Beach street preachers Tite Sufra and Stephen Ocean four years ago, national Christian groups said the slayings were religiously motivated.
But police, and later prosecutors, reached a different conclusion: Jeriah Woody shot his victims to settle a grudge, not because of their evangelizing.
Despite defense claims Woody was wrongfully accused in a case of mistaken identity, a Palm Beach County jury on Thursday found the 22-year-old former Boynton Beach man guilty of two counts of first-degree murder.
The verdict, reached after about two hours of deliberations, concluded a weeklong trial. Circuit Judge John Kastrenakes immediately sentenced Woody to two consecutive terms of life in state prison.
Sara Boyd prays her son, who did not testify, will see his convictions reversed on appeal.
"I don't feel like it was fair, but the law is the law," she told the Sun Sentinel. "He'll be alright. He's got God on his side."
But Assistant State Attorneys Terri Skiles and Reid Scott argued there's "absolutely no doubt" Woody pulled the trigger and executed Sufra, 24 and Ocean, 23, on the evening of Jan. 30, 2010.
"The defendant murdered two people in cold blood, assassinated them," Scott told the jury, with relatives of the victims also seated in the courtroom. "The evidence is overwhelming."
The case hinged on the testimony of witness Masslanter Alcinor, 25, who said he and the victims preached to Woody for about 15 minutes before Woody opened fire.
Alcinor said he watched Woody shoot Sufra in the head and then ran for safety to call 911. Woody then shot Ocean twice, including one fatal blow in the head, the prosecutors said.
"Masslanter Alcinor survived and was able to tell you all," Skiles said in her closing argument.
Assistant Public Defender James Snowden urged the jurors to doubt Alcinor's initial account because the witness failed to tell police the shooter had tattoos and other identifying features.
"This case is about accuracy," Snowden said, adding detectives never found the murder weapon or established a clear motive linking Woody with the crimes.
Snowden also blasted as "unreliable" the testimony of state witness Nelens Jean-Pierre, 26, a convicted felon who then roomed with Woody and is now serving a federal prison sentence.
Woody decided to shoot at the victims to avenge incidents years earlier when Jean-Pierre was shot at by Ocean and Alcinor, Scott said, ignoring Jean-Pierre's warning that he didn't sanction the violence.
Woody "was the young buck who wanted to show he could hold his own," the prosecutor said, adding Woody called Jean-Pierre after the shootings with the news. "That's why he pulled the trigger."
After the shootings, Alcinor gave a description of the suspect and participated in two police photo lineups within days of the slayings. In the first lineup, Alcinor did not identify the shooter. That lineup included a photo of Jean-Pierre.
But the second lineup had a photo of Woody and Alcinor immediately identified him as the killer. In the courtroom on Feb. 14, Alcinor said he was sure then and now that Woody killed his friends.
"I felt that my very soul was taken from me," Alcinor recalled of his reaction to the shootings.
Three weeks later, representatives of the Washington, D.C.-based Christian Defense Coalition, along with the Christian Anti-Defamation Commission, expressed concerns Sufra and Ocean were slain because of their religious beliefs, not gang-related issues.
Boynton Beach police then said there was no reason to believe religion was a factor, and it was not an aspect of the prosecution.
Though just 18 when he was charged with the murders, Woody, who went by the street name "Plug," had a criminal record of burglary, theft and drug-related arrests.
Boyd, Woody's mother, attended most of the trial and said her son was never a violent person growing up.
"Jeriah was not a bad person," she said. "Jeriah has not had violence in his past."
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