Sean Taylor, a University of Miami football legend and at only 24 a rising star for the Washington Redskins, was shot to death six years ago in a slaying that shocked the nation.
Now, after repeated legal delays, the young Fort Myers man accused of pulling the trigger is finally headed to trial.
Tuesday marks the opening of jury selection for Eric Rivera, the first person to go to trial in the high-profile November 2007 slaying. He is one of five men accused of breaking into Taylor’s Palmetto Bay house during a botched burglary that turned deadly.
Rivera, 23, is facing life in prison if convicted of first-degree murder and armed burglary,
Awaiting future trials: Charles Wardlow, 24, Jason Scott Mitchell, 25, and Timothy Brown, 22. The fifth defendant, Venjah Hunte, 25, already has pleaded guilty and may testify against the others.
The sudden, senseless death of the home-grown star and new father triggered an outpouring of emotion in South Florida. Some 3,000 people, including the entire Washington team and the commissioner of the National Football League, attended Taylor’s funeral in Miami, which filled an auditorium at Florida International University.
The Redskins defense took to the field with only 10 men for a first play in their next game — a tribute to the hard-hitting free safety.
But since the suspects were arrested a few days after the killing, the case has slowed to crawl.
Scheduling conflicts and Rivera switching attorneys several times have delayed court-room proceedings. Police, lawyers and even Taylor’s relatives have been prohibited from speaking to the media because of a gag order issued by Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Dennis Murphy soon after the arrests.
Jury selection is expected to last most of the week.
“It is sometimes said that justice delayed is justice denied,” said the Taylor family lawyer, Richard Sharpstein. “But in this case, it’s better late than never and justice will be delivered. The Taylor family has full confidence in Judge Murphy and the prosecution team.”
Before his murder, Taylor, the son of Florida City Police Chief Pedro Taylor, had been a standout athletic star in South Florida.
In 2000, Taylor — while playing running back, defensive back and linebacker — helped lead Gulliver High to a state championship. A top-rated prospect, Taylor signed with the University of Miami and was one of four freshmen to play on the 2001 national championship team. He led the nation with 10 interceptions in 2003 and was named first-team All-American.
The Redskins selected Taylor as the fifth overall pick in 2004. He became a starter by his third game and he went on to become a defensive force — notching 129 tackles, one interception and three forced fumbles in 2006.
But on Nov. 11, 2007, Taylor suffered what would turn out to be a fateful sprained knee in a game against Philadelphia. On the weekend of his death, Washington was playing at Tampa Bay, but Taylor had come home to Palmetto Bay to rehab his knee.
The burglars, according to police evidence released previously in the case, did not think Taylor, 24, would be home when they drove from Fort Myers to South Miami-Dade.
The shooting, according to records, had its roots in a party thrown at Taylor’s house by the football player’s brother and sister the month before the break-in. Mitchell, one of Rivera’s pals, had attended the party and witnessed the sister bragging about money their brother had given them, according to police reports.