A summer of courtrooms and murder trials

By Stephanie Gibson

I woke up physically shaking and on the verge of tears. Robert Anthony Cannon, one of the men who admitted his responsibility in the brutal beatings, mutilation and murder of five people and a dog in Deltona, had escaped from the St. John’s County jail. He somehow managed his way past several sheriffs, killing anyone in his path. He recognized my face from the courtroom and he was coming after me.

Fortunately, it was all a dream. But I was literally “eating, breathing and sleeping” the news. Although in fact he was not after me, I still have chills thinking about that haunting nightmare.

Journalism instructor Rob Armstrong talks about court cases in his classes and to be honest, I never thought I would have to go cover one. But through my internship with First Coast News and Southern Bureau Reporter Jessica Clark this summer, I got to sit through both the so-called “XBOX” trial that involved the five murders and the case of Justin Barber, who was accused of murdering his wife and trying to cover it up. I wasn’t thrilled about it, but knew I needed all the experience I could get.

The Barber trial received grandiose media attention. Court TV, Dateline NBC, local television stations, and even Geraldo Rivera were interested. Barber, who was found guilty of first-degree murder of his 27-year-old wife Apryl, was sitting only 15 feet from me in the courtroom. I guess I thought that if he actually killed his wife, I would be able to sense something from his eyes or behavior. But when the jury announced their verdict after long days of deliberation, he didn’t flinch. He didn’t cry.
And when they suggested the death penalty for him, he still didn’t react.

I heard Barber’s taped deposition of the night his wife died, I witnessed gory crime scene photos and I saw a family physically break down in tears over a lost niece and sister.

The XBOX trial landed at the St. Johns County courthouse after a judge in Deltona decided that there was too much pretrial publicity. The judge hoped that St. Johns would have unbiased jurors who hopefully did not know much about the case.

During that trial, I became familiar with Troy Victorino, Michael Salas and Jerone Hunter, all on trial for the deaths of five housemates.
My first day of the trial included seeing crime scene video of the home where the bodies were found. The camera went from body to body, zooming in on deep abrasions and fatal wounds sustained from repeated beatings with aluminum baseball bats. Blood was on the ceiling, drenched on the walls and even splattered on an empty Tupperware container one victim was eating from right before the assailants came in. Those images will never leave me.

My internship wasn’t all blood and gore, believe me, as I probably wouldn’t have made it. I was able to cover some truly touching stories with First Coast News, and I got to meet some important people in the community.

I made beat calls and searched the Internet for interesting stories and people that could tell them. I rode in the live truck with her cameraman and got excited when we would pass right by the yellow police tape because we were the media.

Of all the stories we covered, those two court cases, and being able to help report them, was an experience I’ll never forget. I still check the closets every once in a while before bed just to make sure that Cannon’s eyes won’t be looking into my own.

And I’m sure I’ll continue to dream about the people I encounter with the news, both good and bad. It’s part of the job.

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