SAN DIEGO -- A jury Friday acquitted a mentally ill transient and petty thief in the 1998 slaying of a 12-year-old girl in her bed in Escondido.

In 2004 a jury had convicted Richard Tuite, now 44, of voluntary manslaughter in the case. But an appellate court last year overturned the verdict and ordered a retrial on that charge.

Tuite smiled but otherwise showed little emotion when the retrial verdict was announced.

The San Diego County Superior Court jury had begun deliberations Wednesday afternoon. Tuite remained in jail during the trial and did not testify.

Stephanie Ann Crowe was found stabbed to death in her bed in her family home in Escondido in January 1998.

Initially the district attorney charged her brother Michael, then 14, and two of his friends in the killing.

Prosecutors said the brother had confessed under questioning. A knife that a prosecution witness said fit the wounds on Stephanie's body was found beneath the bed of one of her brother's friends.

But then forensic testing ordered by the defense showed tiny drops of Stephanie's blood on Tuite's sweat shirt. An earlier test, ordered by the prosecution, had found no blood on the clothing. With the new evidence, the case against the three teenagers was dropped in early 1999.

At the retrial, Tuite's attorney, Brad Patton, told jurors that the blood drops may have been caused by contamination from other items seized from the Crowe home. He stressed that if they found reasonable doubt about Tuite's guilt, they had to acquit him.

Tuite was seen in the neighborhood on the night of the murder. He was known to be asking in ominous tones about a girl named Tracy.

Tuite was arrested in May 2002 just as he was to be released from prison on an unrelated burglary conviction.

In 2004, Tuite was found not guilty of murder but guilty of voluntary manslaughter. He was sentenced to 13 years in prison for that charge and four more years for escaping during a break in his trial.

The case, which has been the subject of two books and a TV movie, centered on issues of coerced confessions and whether police pressured Michael Crowe and the two others into making false confessions and incriminating comments.

In 2011, the Crowe family reached a $7.25-million settlement with Escondido police and other agencies. The family has asserted that Michael's rights were violated during hours of intense questioning.

Last year a federal appeals court ordered a new trial for Tuite on grounds that his attorney was denied the right to cross-examine a key prosecution expert.

tony.perry@latimes.comwq