CRESTVIEW — It took a jury about four hours Wednesday to convict David Russell Holbrook Jr. of murdering Melissa Howard in her home more than 13 years ago.
After excusing the jury, Okaloosa County Circuit Judge Michael Flowers sentenced Holbrook to life in prison.
After seven days of testimony and legal arguments, the jury of nine women and three men began deliberating about 3:30 p.m. and returned with their verdict about 7:30 p.m.
The morning and much of the afternoon Wednesday was taken up with closing arguments presented by prosecuting attorney Clifton Drake and defense lawyer John Jarvis.
Drake took the jury through a two-hour synopsis of the evidence he’d spent a full six days presenting. His goal, he said, was to “show you why the defendant in this case is guilty of first-degree murder.”
He began his lengthy discussion by reintroducing the 22 people who had some involvement in the drama that preceded and followed the Jan. 6, 2006, stabbing death of Howard.
Key figures for those investigating the death were David Russell Holbrook Jr, his brother Michael Holbrook and Brian Howard, Melissa Howard's ex-husband.
Melissa and Brian Howard were involved in a nasty custody fight prior to her death, one which Melissa had emerged from victorious. She was, in fact, due to take over custody on the very day she died, Drake reminded the jurors.
“Melissa Howard considered Russell to be part of Brian Howard’s circle, and as such he was not welcome at her house,” Drake told jurors.
Drake took the jury through the tedious police work done that would eventually lead to Russell Holbrook’s arrest. He discussed numerous lies Holbrook had been caught in and compared changes the defendant’s alibis to show how each time he was pressed for new details his window of opportunity to kill Howard grew.
On Jan. 25, 2006, three weeks after Howard’s death, Crestview police interviewed Russell Holbrook and he told them the last time he’d seen Melissa was two years prior to her death. At a second interview, Holbrook remembered that he had dropped by to see Melissa Howard two days before she died.
Drake played tapes of both interviews for the second time Wednesday, and repeated to the jury the importance of this change in Holbrook’s story.
“The defendant claimed he had been by her house in years, but in truth he was there two days before her death,” Drake said. “That’s not something you forget; that’s something you’re hiding.”
Given that the last time Howard was known to be alive was about 8:50 p.m., Drake said, Holbrook had plenty of time to kill Howard. He said evidence showed the Holbrooks had shown up on Walmart video after the homicide. He also noted Michael Holbrook was acting strangely, perhaps trying to wipe blood from his hands, in the video shot at Walmart.
“None of his timelines match the evidence, none of them,” Drake said. “That video surveillance shows you all of his stories are lies. He had plenty of time to kill Melissa Howard before he went to Walmart. Under this scenario he had almost an hour.”
An hour, Drake said, would be plenty of time for a man of Holbrook’s size and military experience, “who likes knives” to overpower and stab to death a 115-pound woman.
Drake also revisited DNA evidence that had proven crucial to building a case against Russell Holbrook. A search warrant was obtained to get a sample of Russell Holbrook’s DNA 10 years after the killing, after a foreign substance was found on the bloodied sweat shirt Howard was wearing when she died. Brian Howard and Michael Holbrook we’re excluded using the DNA sample, but it proved a match for Russell Holbrook.
“His DNA was on her body because he was there that night and killed her,” Drake said.
Jarvis, Holbrook's attorney, claimed in his opening argument that solving the Melissa Howard case “was personal” for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Howard had a relative who was high up within the FDLE bureaucracy, he said, and the pressure felt to solve the case caused mistakes.
The mistakes were particularly egregious where DNA evidence was involved, Jarvis said.
“They’re stretching the science,” he said.
Jarvis said his client had been, if not always accurate, certainly consistent in the interviews he gave law enforcement. He said Russell Holbrook had never confessed, through thousands of interviews and wire tapped phone conversations, to the killing and he called the evidence gathered weak.
The defense attorney also argued that prosecutors had never presented a strong motive for the killing. It showed no evidence that Holbrook had ever benefited in any way from killing Brian Howard’s ex-wife.
“There’s no incentive from Brian Howard for Russell Holbrook,” he said.