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Jonathan Schuler pummeled a co-worker’s head with a crowbar and dove headfirst down a second-story trash chute as he tried to flee the construction site.
But the day laborer from west of Boynton Beach didn’t get far, as other crew members caught and held him until deputies arrived. Schuler insisted it was an act of self-defense, but what investigators didn’t know at the time was that the assailant had apparently killed before. Twice, in Lake Worth and Deerfield Beach.
Broward and Palm Beach county detectives wound up charging Schuler with three murders committed in quick succession in early 2017. And now prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for one of the homicides.
Jury selection began Friday for Schuler, 37, in what is South Florida’s first murder trial since the coronavirus pandemic shutdowns 18 months ago. Authorities are handling each charge in separate trials, so jurors will not hear a word about the alleged series of deadly attacks leading to grand jury indictments:
Killing No. 1: Jan. 8, 2017. Victim Scott Osterman, 49, was found shot to death in his Lake Worth home. The Palm Beach County State Attorney’s Office says it will ask a jury to recommend capital punishment for Schuler when the first-degree murder case goes to trial in April. It’s not clear from online documents if the men knew each other; the lawyers involved declined to comment.
Killing No. 2: Feb. 3, 2017. Victim Junior Petit-Bien, 34, was shot 13 times inside his father’s home west of Boynton Beach. Prosecutors say Schuler had been renting a room there for six months, and Petit-Bien had been sleeping on a couch for a few days before the shooting. Schuler says it was self-defense. This is the focus of the trial now underway. If convicted as charged, Schuler would be sentenced to life in prison.
Killing No. 3: March 8, 2017. Victim Arcenio Alvarez, 32, was beaten with a piece of metal at a Deerfield Beach construction site. Authorities say Schuler and Alvarez worked together until Schuler bashed Alvarez’s head in front of other employees. Schuler, on the job for just hours, claims he was defending himself from an attack, according to an arrest report. A Broward judge could set a trial date during a Sept. 10 hearing.
Hundreds of prospective jurors
Four months ago, Schuler’s lawyers in Palm Beach County said his anxiety over repeated trial scheduling delays led to a serious breakdown in the Shreveport, Lousiana, man’s mental health. But he has since been declared mentally competent to proceed, and his lawyer, Public Defender Carey Haughwout, said the defense is ready to go after such a long wait.
The main reason for having the trial on the second homicide first is because the initial killing is a death-penalty case that requires questioning of several hundred prospective jurors.
The court system, struggling with the COVID surge, is not yet ready to hold trials on higher profile cases that require so many jurors for a days-long selection process, said Chief Judge Glenn Kelley.
‘Stand your ground’ claims
In a pretrial ruling, Circuit Judge Daliah Weiss rejected Schuler’s contention that the murder charge in Junior Petit-Bien’s death should be tossed under Florida’s “stand your ground” law.
But the defense wants to make the same arguments to the jury that it was a “justifiable homicide.” Until the series of killings, Schuler had been arrested on various traffic and drug offenses in Palm Beach and Broward counties, records show.
Leading up to the shooting, Schuler rented a room from Marc Antoine Petit-Bien. Schuler and Petit-Bien’s cousin worked together for a construction firm. Within a week of the shooting, Petit-Bien’s son Junior moved into the home because his apartment lease was up.
Prosecutors and defense attorneys disagree as to whether Junior and Schuler had contact at any time before Schuler gunned him down.
On the morning of Feb. 3, 2017, Schuler says he got “nervous” when a strange car, a red Monte Carlo, parked on the driveway and the man who stepped out “just the body language and demeanor, it was a red flag.”
Schuler then grabbed a new 9mm handgun he legally bought from a sporting goods store, Assistant Public Defender Joseph Walsh wrote.
Schuler says he encountered the stranger, Junior, in the home and Junior ignored him. He told detectives that Junior moved aggressively and reached for his backpack, seemingly going for a weapon. So he shot the man he viewed as a threat.
Junior “looked very intent on harming me,” Schuler said in a statement. “I felt that way.”
The defense notes that a knife was inside the “partially unzipped” backpack, though Schuler didn’t know about it at the time.
During a search of Schuler’s bedroom, found “Target Focused Training” DVDs, and handwritten notes with the words, “assume everyone is a killer.”
Prosecutor Marci Rex argues Schuler’s story self-defense doesn’t hold up, explaining the victim had a key to the house, had a right to be there, and had encountered Schuler a few times before.
“There is no evidence that Junior ever made any threat at any time to the Defendant through word or action,” she wrote in a pleading. “Junior was found lying on the floor by the couch … at no time did Junior take out a knife or weapon.”
Judge Weiss found that it doesn’t matter whether Junior and Schuler knew each other or not — Schuler lived in a “communal house” where interactions with strangers is a normal occurrence. The court also concluded that Schuler’s belief that deadly force was necessary was “objectively unreasonable” given the circumstances.
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“Simply put, Florida’s Stand Your Ground law does not operate as a license to assume any unexplained action by a stranger presents a threat of imminent death,” Weiss wrote.
Authorities are not describing Schuler as a serial killer, even though he is accused of multiple murders.
On the surface, Schuler could fall under the FBI’s definition of a serial murderer as “a single offender who killed at least two victims in separate events at different times.”
Yet criminal justice experts say some people who kill multiple people over days or weeks aren’t necessarily considered serial killers. An example is a person who is evading capture and may commit several murders over a short period of time, while serial killers generally have an intent to kill before the opportunity presents itself.
“There is not one size fits all,” said Stuart Kaplan, a former FBI special agent who practices criminal defense law from offices in Palm Beach Gardens and Orlando.