TAMPA, Fla. -- Citing a diagnosis of mental illness for murder defendant Justin McGriff, Hillsborough Assistant State Prosecutor Ron Gale surprised the court at an otherwise routine hearing by announcing that the state is taking the death penalty off the table.
"We would announce our intention to withdraw that notice at this time," Gale said by phone Friday. “I will be filing a formal pleading withdrawing our notice of intent to seek death.”
Judge Christopher Sabella appeared surprised by the move saying, "All right, well that’s pretty significant. That's big news, I suspect, in this case.”
"The state no longer seeking death speeds things along and creates a little more of a rapid pace in terms of arriving at trial," agreed McGriff's public defender, Jamie Kane.
Related: No bond for man accused of fatally stabbing Tampa bus driver
McGriff is charged with the horrific murder of Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority (HART) bus driver Thomas Dunn last May.
McGriff is accused of stabbing and killing Hart bus driver Thomas Dunn.
During McGriff's bond hearing last year, passenger Deshawn Campbell described the horror he witnessed.
"I seen him stab the bus driver a few times," said Campbell.
Detectives said before the attack, McGriff walked up to Dunn and said, "God bless you,” and Dunn replied with, "God Bless you.”
That's when investigators said McGriff, without provocation, swung the knife he held in his right hand toward Dunn -- slashing his throat. Dunn died of his injuries.
McGriff was caught a short time after that.
A few months later, McGriff was evaluated by doctors and found incompetent to stand trial. He was sent to a state hospital for treatment and recently returned.
While McGriff may now be competent for trial, prosecutors were apparently less sure about pursuing the death penalty.
"After we learned of evidence of the defendant’s mental illness, we determined that seeking the death penalty was no longer appropriate in this case," a spokesperson for the state attorney later explained. "This awful attack on a public servant shocked us all, and our office remains focused on obtaining justice for the victim’s family through a murder conviction."
If convicted of first-degree murder, this news means McGriff's life will be spared; instead, he would spend the rest of his life in prison.