By JIM SAUNDERS Tallahassee Bureau Chief
TALLAHASSEE -- Florida Supreme Court justices Thursday began considering whether Roy Lee McDuffie should stay on death row for the 2002 slayings of two co-workers in a Dollar General Store in Deltona.
During an appeal hearing in the high-profile case, justices focused heavily on issues related to McDuffie's alleged motive -- financial problems that drove him to rob the store and kill clerks Janice Schneider, 39, and Dawniell Beauregard, 27.
At the same time, justices delved into a lack of physical evidence in the case. A partial palm print from McDuffie was found on a piece of duct tape used to bind Beauregard, but other evidence, such as the gun used to shoot the women, was never found.
Justice Barbara Pariente indicated the lack of evidence made it important for the court to carefully scrutinize the case. Justices often take months to rule on death-penalty appeals.
"We've got a situation here where we really have to look carefully at any (potential legal) error," she said.
But Justice Raoul Cantero III said he thought there was direct evidence against McDuffie, including the palm print.
"This isn't just a circumstantial evidence case," Cantero said.
McDuffie, 44, was a manager trainee at the Dollar General Store on Deltona Boulevard and had been with Schneider and Beauregard in the hours before they were found shot to death Oct. 25, 2002.
A jury in 2005 convicted McDuffie of murder, and he was sentenced to death. He is now being held at Union Correctional Institution in North Florida, according to the state Department of Corrections.
Todd Scher, an attorney for McDuffie, argued during Thursday's hearing that Circuit Judge S. James Foxman made legal errors that should lead to a new trial.
Those arguments centered, in part, on witnesses related to McDuffie's financial problems. In one instance, Foxman prevented a friend of McDuffie, Anthony Wiggins, from testifying about loaning him money.
Scher said such testimony could have helped counter the allegation that McDuffie was motivated to rob the store.
"There's no other motive that the state was able to suggest other than this financial motive," Scher said.
But Assistant Attorney General Barbara Davis said Wiggins was not allowed to testify because defense attorneys had not given required notice that he would be a witness in the trial.
"The prosecutor was just taken aback," Davis said.
Scher also focused on the judge's decision to allow testimony about a threatening and profane voice mail that McDuffie left just days before the murders. That message was left for a man who had started an eviction lawsuit over a house McDuffie had rented.
Davis argued the testimony was relevant to the case because it showed McDuffie's "mental state."
But some justices questioned whether the testimony could have unfairly prejudiced the jury as it considered whether McDuffie was guilty in the Dollar General murders.
"The comments showed that he was a pretty bad actor as far as the language that he used and the threats that he made," Justice Harry Lee Anstead said.