Courts

No mistrial after surprise evidence surfaces in trial of Miami cop-killing suspect

 

dovalle@MiamiHerald.com

A judge won’t grant a mistrial, for now, in the case of cop-killing suspect Dennis Escobar after a startling police audiotape surfaced that could taint the man’s confession.

Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Leon Firtel made the decision against the backdrop of history: In 1997, the Florida Supreme Court threw out Escobar’s original conviction and death sentence. It took until last week for Escobar to finally begin his new trial.

“I don’t want to deny the defendant his rights but this judge has an obligation to the State of Florida to get this case to trial after 15 years,” a frustrated Firtel told prosecutors and defense lawyers, who had agreed to ask for a mistrial.

Firtel on Monday will reconsider granting a mistrial after lawyers hash out more legal issues. Jurors, for now, are on standby.

Escobar, 52, is accused of shooting Miami Officer Victor Estefan to death after the veteran officer pulled him and his brother, Douglas Escobar, over in a stolen Mazda in Little Havana in March 1988.

The brothers fled to California, where they were wounded in a shootout with highway patrol troopers about 180 miles north of Los Angeles.

Police have long maintained that Escobar, while in a California prison hospital room, agreed to waive his right to remain silent and talk to Miami homicide detectives. Three days later, he confessed to killing Estefan.

But on Sunday, an unmarked, undated cassette tape was found in an evidence box that depicted Escobar refusing to speak, instead telling Detective Jorge Morin to talk to his lawyer.

Morin himself discovered the tape and alerted prosecutor Reid Rubin, who immediately turned it over to Escobar’s defense team.

With the case significantly weakened, prosecutors floated an offer to the brothers: no death penalty if they plead guilty and agreed to life in prison.

Escobar has yet to decide whether to accept the deal. The brothers are already serving a life prison term in California for the attack on the troopers.

Defense attorney Phillip Reizenstein may also ask the judge to throw out the confession. That would deliver a major blow to the prosecution’s case in this trial — or a future one.

As Escobar mulled the plea offer Tuesday night, prosecutors found a second audiotape, this one of Escobar’s interview with California detectives investigating the attack on the highway patrol troopers.

The second tape wasn’t wholly a surprise: Lawyers on each side long had a transcript of that interview.

But the additional discovery was enough that Judge Firtel ordered lawyers to listen to and document every tape left in evidence, about 15 or so, to make sure none others could impact the trial. Firtel gave them until Monday to finish.

Escobar’s defense team has also asked the judge to conduct a hearing to find out why the state attorney’s office, years ago, never turned over the tape to Escobar’s previous lawyer.

Reizenstein said the current prosecution team “did their job honorably” in immediately turning over the tape. Rubin has also told the defense, many months ago, that the evidence box of cassette tapes was available for examination.

But Detective Morin, or the original prosecutors, should have to explain why the tape was never disclosed years ago, and if prosecutors knew that Morin lied under oath at previous hearings, Reizenstein told the judge.

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