SEBRING — Relatives of Jessica Montague, one of five women shot in the now-demolished SunTrust Bank, were in court Friday to hear lawyers debate pre-trial motions before Circuit Court Judge Peter Estrada.
Montague’s alleged killer, Zephen Xaver, was also in court. It was the first time the 24-year-old — handcuffed and wearing a grey and white county inmate uniform — has been in court since Jan. 23, 2019, when he called 911 from the bank to announce he had shot five people. Xaver waived his right to appear at his arraignment that February.
So there he was, sitting quietly at the defense table, fidgeting occasionally with his hands but remaining motionless for most of the morning-long hearing. Greg Warner, Jessica’s stepfather, her mother Tina, and a brother sat behind the prosecution bench, glancing over at Xaver from time to time. Warner, a big man with a gentle demeanor, was asked about seeing the man accused of creating such destruction in his family as well as in the families of other victims.
“I’m not impressed,” the retired police officer said outside the Highlands County courtroom as legal arguments continued inside. “He took a beautiful person from us, from her children.”
Seeing the pudgy man in shackles also reminded Warner of how much love Jessica and her mother Tina shared every day until the day a mass shooter brought his nightmare to Jessica’s workplace.
“They were best friends,” said Warner, known as “Bubba” to his friends. “They say that about parents and kids, but they were best friends in the real sense. They could talk about everything. Every morning at 7:20 the phone would ring and it would be Jessica.”
The community gathered five days after the shooting to grieve and remember the five victims: Montague, newlywed Cynthia Watson, mother-of-two Marisol Lopez, grandmother Debra Cook and mother-of-seven Ana Piñon-Williams.
In Sebring, Montague’s friends and those of her widowed husband, Jermaine Montague, have held car rallies every January in Jessica’s memory. That’s because she loved Ford Mustangs; Jermaine was fixing one up for her at the time of her death.
Now, Xaver’s trial is within sight, with jury selection scheduled for May 2022, six months from now. To stay on course, lawyers worked all morning Friday to get pre-trial motions out of the way. Defense lawyer Jane Allie McNeill’s job is to defend Xaver, so some of her motions dealt with jury selection, jury instructions, and having a neutral third party read victim impact statements rather than a family member. She urged Estrada to prevent such emotional testimony, which she argued could unfairly influence a jury.
Estrada denied the motion, citing Marsy’s Law, which in Florida and other states allows victims of crime to describe how the action of the defendant damaged their lives. Prosecutor Paul R. Wallace told Estrada he or another prosecution lawyer would step in and read statements should a witness become too “inflammatory or emotional.”
“It’s a feeble attempt to lessen the penalty for the crime he committed,” Warner said of McNeill’s motions to protect Xaver’s constitutional rights. “Xaver didn’t have a constitutional right to kill my daughter, along with four other women.”
The family continues to remain strong, Warner said. “Jessica has three brothers and three kids. We can never replace her. Tina stays busy playing with her three grandchildren. She takes great care of them and holds them close.”
As for the pace of justice, the law enforcement officer knows that courts have procedures and processes that must be followed, especially in death penalty cases. As motions fly inside the courtroom, Warner expresses confidence in the trial’s outcome.
“They are prolonging the inevitable,” he said.