By William R. Levesque, St. Petersburg Times
Published: May 22, 2008

LARGO — Rodney L. Corbitt looked on nervously as the six jurors filed out of the courtroom late Thursday to begin deliberating his fate.

Accused of raping a tourist in a Largo hotel, he faced life in prison.

Prosecutors were confident. Detectives said Corbitt confessed. His ex-girlfriend testified that he admitted raping the woman. The victim identified him in court. He was in the neighborhood the night of the attack.

Even some of the jurors who were filing out of the room thought he was probably guilty.

About 2 a.m. Friday, four hours after deliberations began, jurors returned and announced that Corbitt was not guilty of rape, burglary and robbery.

Corbitt, 31, of Palm Harbor cried as he hugged his defense attorney, Frank McDermott, a young lawyer trying just his third or fourth felony trial alone. Corbitt told him softly, “I owe you my life.”

Said McDermott, “When detectives come into the court and testify that your client confessed to them, that’s a tough mountain to climb.”

Gerald Dye, an alternate juror who did not participate in deliberations, waited for the verdict and said he was disgusted by the result. “It’s a travesty,” Dye said. “It makes no sense. I had him guilty on all three counts. It was almost an embarrassment that I sat on that jury.”

How McDermott and his client overcame a confession may underscore the importance of physical evidence in a juror’s mind. Despite a confession and a victim who identified Corbitt, Pinellas sheriff’s deputies never were able to collect a fingerprint, a shred of hair or a stain of semen linking him to the attack on Dec. 29, 1998.

“You have to have something to tie him to that room,” said juror Russell Lawson. “We all felt deep down that he was the one. We sure did. If they could have come up with anything to put him in that room, he would have been guilty in a heartbeat.”

Corbitt has been jailed since August 1999. He remains at the Pinellas County Jail awaiting another trial on unrelated grand theft and burglary charges and could not immediately be reached for comment.

The Missouri woman who was raped at the La Quinta Inn on Ulmerton Road also could not be reached. Her identity is being withheld because of the nature of the charges.

“I’m disappointed that the jury did not feel confident with the victim’s gut-wrenching, compelling testimony,” said Pinellas prosecutor Brian Daniels.

The 42-year-old woman and her husband were staying at the hotel while they visited Florida to see relatives.

Her husband was away from the room when someone knocked on her door. When she opened the door a crack, a man brandishing a knife forced his way in. He demanded jewelry and cash and then raped her.

Later, police identified Corbitt as a suspect. He was in the neighborhood drinking the night of the rape. Two detectives testified that when questioned, he admitted raping the woman, though he claimed he was paid to do so by the woman’s husband.

Deputies believed he raped her but didn’t buy the part about the husband.

Corbitt’s ex-girlfriend, Tanya Sue Freeman, testified in court that Corbitt told her he raped the woman.

Corbitt’s attorney, McDermott, pointed jurors to an alternative suspect who, he said, deputies didn’t fully investigate.

A worker at the hotel testified that a guest made outlandishly lewd comments to her not long before the rape and at one point tried to kiss her.

Deputies interviewed the man after the rape was reported and thought he acted nervously. But his description didn’t match the one the victim gave police, so he wasn’t pursued as a suspect.

Her attacker was much older, taller and heavier, the victim told police.

“The police need to follow all leads,” said McDermott. “The victim deserves it, but so does my client.”

Jurors didn’t look to the alternate suspect proposed by McDermott in acquitting Corbitt, said juror Lawson.

He said jurors were bothered by many things, most particularly the lack of physical evidence. But they were also uncomfortable that deputies didn’t tape-record the confession. Deputies said Corbitt refused to be taped.

“I feel sorry for the lady,” Lawson said. “Somebody raped her.”