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Judge dismisses fatal stabbing charge

BRADENTON — A judge has dismissed a manslaughter charge against a man in a fatal stabbing last year, after a local defense attorney argued the man acted in self-defense.

Bradenton defense attorney Charlie Britt III argued that his client, Edwin Alfonso Vargas-Lopez, acted in self-defense, citing the “Stand Your Ground” law passed in recent years. The law allows a person the right to defend themselves if attacked, even using deadly force.

It is the first time the law has successfully been used in Manatee as a defense, Britt said.

Manatee County Sheriff’s Office deputies arrested Vargas-Lopez, 34, on March, 14, 2009, after he stabbed 33-year-old Fernando Morales in the parking lot of Antojitos-Mexicanos bar, 320 Cortez Road.

Britt said his client had been dancing with a woman in the bar, and two men became angry with him, causing Vargas-Lopez to leave the bar.

Vargas-Lopez got into his truck and began to drive off, when someone punched him in the face through an open driver’s side window and several people surrounded the vehicle. Britt said Morales also punched Vargas-Lopez through the window, and tried to pull him out of the truck.

A woman tried to pull Morales back from the truck, and at that time Vargas-Lopez swung a knife at Morales hitting him with a fatal blow in the chest. The knife also struck the woman’s hand, and deputies arrested Vargas-Lopez on charges of murder and aggravated battery.

In February, prosecutors reduced the murder charge to manslaughter, and last week Circuit Judge Debra Riva ruled in favor of Britt’s “Stand Your Ground” motion to dismiss the charge. Britt said he expects the state also to dismiss the battery charge.

Riva said since evidence showed Morales had punched Vargas-Lopez, and reached inside his truck, he had reason to fear being harmed.

“Accordingly, the defendant was justified in using deadly force to protect himself because he had a presumed and an actual fear of imminent great bodily harm,” Riva wrote. Britt praised the decision, but lamented that his client had to spend a year in jail on a charge he said he never should have faced.

“This was an obvious case of someone fighting for his life as he is being attacked with an angry crowd around him,” Britt said. “He shouldn’t have been charged in the first place.”

Sheriff’s spokesman Dave Bristow said the fact that Vargas-Lopez admittedly killed someone gave them probable cause to make the arrest. Assistant State Attorney Ed Brodsky said his office has been in contact with the Florida Attorney General’s Office to discuss a possible appeal.

“We are in the process of discussing all our legal options in this case,” he said. “With that said, we respect the judge’s decision.”

Even though Vargas-Lopez had been cleared of the manslaughter charge, and even if the battery charge is also dropped, Britt says his client is still likely to remain in jail. That’s because the state ordered an immigration hold be put on Vargas-Lopez, who is from Honduras and has a work permit that will not expire until this summer, Britt said.

“So he will have to stay in jail for who knows how long even though he is here legally and a judge has ruled he did nothing wrong,” Britt said.