MIAMI-DADE COURTS

Plea deal in Miami cop killing case fizzles, for now

 

Dennis and Douglas Escobar were to accept 55 years in prison, but one brother refused to admit guilt — despite not wanting to go to trial.

dovalle@MiamiHerald.com

A week of strange legal twists for accused Miami cop killer Dennis Escobar culminated Friday afternoon in an apparent plea deal that would spare him and his brother Douglas possible execution.

Then Douglas walked into court.

Also accused of murdering Miami Officer Victor Estefan in 1988, Douglas greeted his brother — for the first time in six years — with chuckles and a grin. But when the judge began asking standard questions about pleading guilty, Douglas balked.

Circuit Judge Leon Firtel repeatedly asked him to speak in Spanish, through an interpreter. He stubbornly answered in English. Douglas’ lawyers whispered in his ear, then took him into the jury room for talks.

As the hearing stretched on for more than an hour, frustration set in for Estefan’s family.

As Douglas Escobar insisted he didn’t want to go to trial — but didn’t think he was guilty — resignation settled in with lawyers, who realized the bearded defendant, hands shoved in his red jail jumpsuit, did not grasp the framework of the plea deal.

“I didn’t shoot no one,” said Douglas, 53. “I don’t want to plead guilty.”

Firtel adjourned court Friday night, with everyone set to return early Monday, giving his lawyers two more days to talk with him.

“Another weekend of agony,” said Delia Estefan, widow of the slain officer, who had hoped to address the brothers after their guilty plea. “The days just seem so long.”

The criminal prosecution of the Escobar brothers began 25 years ago when they were arrested in the slaying of the popular Miami police officer, who was shot to death after a Little Havana traffic stop in March 1988.

Prosecutors say Douglas Escobar, wanted on several armed robbery charges, was driving a stolen Mazda and ordered his brother Dennis, the passenger, to shoot Estefan.

The Escobars then fled to California, where they were wounded in a confrontation with highway patrol officers north of Los Angeles. Miami homicide detectives flew to California, where they interviewed both men as they lay in a prison hospital.

Both men confessed. Detectives later found the stolen Mazda, Douglas’ fingerprint inside.

In 1991, the Escobars were convicted at trial and sentenced to death. But the Florida Supreme Court overturned the convictions.

Both brothers still face the death penalty. At one point, Douglas was deemed incompetent to proceed to trial because of mental health issues; he was declared competent in 2002.

Last week, after nearly 16 years of legal wrangling, testimony began in Dennis Escobar’s retrial. But an unmarked cassette tape discovered in an evidence box included Escobar asking for a lawyer, throwing the trial into an uproar.

The bombshell tape contradicted Miami Detective Jorge Morin’s long-held story that Escobar never asked for a lawyer when he agreed to speak to detectives.

With the case weakened significantly — and the possibility that the judge could toss the confession — prosecutors offered Dennis Escobar a plea deal of life in prison over execution.

The judge refused to grant a mistrial, ordering lawyers instead to review remaining evidence boxes, a search that yielded floppy discs and some sort of cassette tape so old no one could figure out how to access the information on them. But by Friday, after more talks between two sets of defense lawyers, both Escobars agreed to sentences of 55 years in prison for pleading guilty to second-degree murder, waiving credit for all time served.

Under 1988 Florida law, in which a convict had to serve roughly 33 percent of his sentence, the Escobars could finish their term after serving about 18 more years. Then, they would return to California, where they would have to complete a life prison term — with a possibility of parole there.

But the plea offer, for now, means both men have to plead guilty together, prosecutor Reid Rubin said.

And Douglas, at least on Friday, would not.

“I’m sorry folks, but these are the circumstances we are in,” Judge Firtel told the court as he adjourned for the weekend.

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