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Justin Campos: precious life, untimely death

Justin CamposIMMOKALEE — Photographs flashed, one after the other, on a slideshow screen high above the open casket of a young Seminole man lying in repose, ball cap crooked on his forehead. As family and friends watched, it was difficult for them to believe that 28-year-old Justin Campos had been declared a murderer of two men and was, himself, a victim of murder.

A congregation of 700 family members, friends and curious gathered at the Immokalee First Seminole Baptist Church to attend a viewing for Campos, who was found stabbed to death Oct. 1 inside Madison Correctional Institution (CI).

As each slide came into focus, the pictures showed the wide smile and dark features of 6-foot-3-inch, 250-pound Campos, a popular resident of the Immokalee Reservation who graduated from Immokalee High School, lettered in football, basketball and baseball, and wrote music. He was also a best friend to many of his peers and “a very, very, very special person,” said his grieving mother, Ada Campos.

“He always told us he was going to die young,” she said.

Muffled crying, laughter and expressions of angst swirled about the church as the photos brought memories of the man who died young: Campos posing with his cousins, looking tough in a football uniform, baseball bat on his shoulder, jiving with his many nieces and nephews who jumped and tugged on him like he was their giant teddy bear. Always smiling.

“He just showed up at my door one night. I had only been to town two days,” said Pastor Josh LeadingFox during a eulogy about Campos. “It was like we had known each other all our lives. He watched out for me. He spread the word to have people come to church. I considered him my brother. I was devastated when I got the news. It was the last thing I ever expected to hear.”

For the family, bad news came five times.

First was Jan. 18, 2011 when Campos was arrested and charged with shooting and killing two Latin Kings gang members in the parking lot of Lookers, a night club in Fort Myers.

Next was Jan. 12, 2012 when he was convicted of both second-degree murder and manslaughter; Lee County Circuit Judge Alane Laboda had thrown out his self-defense Stand Your Ground claim.

More bad news came March 19, 2012, in the same courtroom packed with his friends and family, when the same judge sentenced him to life in prison plus 25 years.

The next bad news came 18 months later when his face and throat were cut allegedly by a Latin Kings gang member at Jackson Correctional Institution in Malone, Fla. Campos was transferred to Madison Correctional

Institution after the altercation as a safety precaution.

The final news came Oct. 1 that Campos had been found dead at the Madison prison. Those who know what happened are not talking, including the Florida Department of Corrections (DOC).

Despite the recurring bad news culminated in the  tragic death of her son, Ada Campos still believes in her son’s innocence.

An appeal of his convictions, now under consideration by the 2nd District Court of Appeal in Lakeland, is very promising, she said.

“We fully expected the court to throw out his convictions,” Ada Campos said. “The videotape clearly shows he was acting in self-defense.”

The video is available online.

According to Florida law, an appeal must still proceed through the court system even though the appellant has died. The state can choose to drop the charges. Or the District Court can proceed with a ruling on the appeal, posthumously. Either way, “we expect Justin’s record to be completely cleared,” Ada Campos said.

A decision is expected Nov. 11.

Ada Campos still has many questions about her son’s fate. She questions why the Stand Your Ground claim was thrown out; why the DOC didn’t take more precautions after her son had his throat and face cut at Jackson Correctional Institution; why his attacker at Jackson was never prosecuted; and why she can’t get more information about her son’s death.

Right now the state is not talking.

“We cannot comment on an ongoing investigation,” said DOC spokesperson Misty Cash.

“We will get to the bottom of all this,” Ada Campos said.  “My son did not deserve to be put into prison and he did not deserve to die. Those guilty will have to pay.”