Man is acquitted of manslaughter in stabbing

By CHRIS TISCH, St. Petersburg Times
Published Nov 4, 2004

A jury acquitted a man of manslaughter on Wednesday in a fatal February stabbing outside a downtown Clearwater coffee shop.

Jurors took about 90 minutes to acquit Paulin Batra of manslaughter in the death of Lili Gjika. The two men are both Albanian immigrants who got into an argument at the downtown Clearwater Starbucks, a gathering spot for the local Albanian community.

Clearwater police arrested Batra on a second-degree murder charge after detectives determined he stabbed Gjika twice in the chest with sharp tools from a tire-repair kit. Prosecutors later changed the charge to manslaughter, a second-degree felony that carries a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison.

Batra has maintained his innocence since his arrest. He has claimed he only stabbed Gjika in self-defense. Gjika was a strong 46- year-old man who stood 5-foot-9 and weighed 210 pounds. Batra, who was 56 at the time of the incident, is an inch shorter, is slight and weighs about 145 pounds.

While sitting with a group of Albanians at the coffee shop, the two men began to argue over immigration status. Other people separated the pair and led them away. Batra was led to his car in a nearby parking lot.

Defense attorney Roger Futerman said Gjika then attacked Batra, who stabbed Gjika to defend himself. He said Gjika was threatening to hurt Batra as he came at him with fists at the ready.

“He was a victim,” Futerman told jurors in closing arguments. “He was attacked.”

But prosecutors Kendall Davidson and Donny Kilfin told jurors Batra had no marks on his body to indicate Gjika, who was unarmed, had hit him.

They also said Batra could have pulled out of the parking lot and left, but instead armed himself with two sharp tools and plunged them into Gjika’s chest.

“We’re talking about a willing combatant,” Kilfin said during closing arguments. “Mr. Batra armed himself in anticipation of what was going to happen.”

Davidson pointed out that one of the wounds came at a downward angle, which indicated that Batra at one point was standing over Gjika.

After the stabbing, a friend of Batra’s took the tools and dumped them in a nearby trash can. Batra then left the scene. The tools were never recovered.

Gjika died at the hospital. Detectives found Batra two days later and arrested him.

Futerman said even though Gjika wasn’t armed, Batra still felt he was in danger of serious injury or death.

“I think the jury agreed with me that you have a right to defend yourself and that fists can be deadly weapons,” he said.

Gjika’s family members said he came to the United States in 1997 seeking political asylum. His wife and two children remained in Albania, but Gjika sent them money.

Family members described him as a fine man who didn’t deserve to die for a quarrel.

“That was injustice,” his nephew, Mario Gjika, said of the verdict. “I don’t know how the jury let him free.”

Batra’s family members said he came to the United States about four years ago to escape a government that had imprisoned him without reason. He has three daughters who live in the United States.

Batra, who needed an interpreter throughout the two-day trial, declined to comment through his daughter, Katie Batra. However, she said the family is sorry Gjika is dead, but believed Batra was only protecting himself.

“Everybody would do the same thing,” she said. “We’re really sorry about what happened, but it was self defense.”

Chris Tisch can be reached at 445-4156 or tisch@sptimes.com

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