Criminal courts

Accused gunman, on witness stand, denies shooting NFL star Sean Taylor

 

dovalle@MiamiHerald.com

Five young men from Fort Myers drove in a rented SUV across the state to the South Miami-Dade home of Sean Taylor — but only one was never part of the scheme to ransack the football star’s home.

That was the claim of Eric Rivera Jr., who took to the witness stand in his own defense on Tuesday, swearing that he was an oblivious tag-along to the botched burglary, never actually entering the house where the NFL player was shot to death.

And that detailed, video-taped confession he gave to Miami-Dade detectives days later?

A concocted story, Rivera insisted, spun to please badgering cops who repeatedly suggested his family was being threatened because of his involvement in Taylor’s killing.

“At that time, I didn’t care about going to jail. I was more concerned about my family,” Rivera told jurors. “I thought they might be in danger or something.”

Rivera, 23, is accused of fatally shooting the former University of Miami football star inside his Palmetto Bay home in November 2007, a crime that shocked South Florida and the nation. His testimony was not a surprise. His lawyers have built their trial strategy around proving that cops coerced Rivera into confessing to a crime he did not commit.

But during a withering cross-examination, Rivera stumbled on a host of key points. Among them:

•  Rivera admitted that during a 2011 court hearing, he acknowledged — under oath and before a judge — that his confession was actually true. Rivera said he previously lied in court so that he wouldn’t one day have to testify against his buddy, Charles Wardlow, who is also charged in the crime.

•  The 23-year-old admitted to prosecutor Reid Rubin that the tools used in the burglary came from his home’s yard. But seemingly realizing his slip-up, Rivera backtracked, saying the tools belonged to Wardlow and had been left at his home.

•  Rivera insisted he barely knew and never called co-defendant Jason Mitchell — a story he stuck to even when shown phone records from that night showing he and Mitchell called each other repeatedly.

•  He acknowledged that, several months after his arrest, he penned a letter to a cousin trying to get the relative to change the testimony of a key witness who saw all of the youths together after the crime. Rivera, in talking about why he wrote the letter, acknowledged that he originally planned on using a different defense at trial.

“Yes, I was planning on using an alibi,” Rivera said.

After Rivera testified Tuesday, both prosecutors and defense attorneys rested their cases. Closing arguments will be Wednesday afternoon, with jury deliberations to follow.

Miami-Dade prosecutors say Rivera, Wardlow, Mitchell, Timmy Brown and Venjah Hunte drove from Southwest Florida to Taylor’s home, believing no one was home that night.

But Taylor was home and grabbed a machete to protect his girlfriend and their infant daughter. Rivera kicked in the master bedroom and shot Taylor in the leg, prosecutors say. He suffered massive blood loss and died.

Miami-Dade prosecutors say cell phone and toll records tracked the group’s trip from Fort Myers to Taylor’s home and back. Footprints “consistent” with the soles of Rivera’s Nike Shox were also found at the scene, including one on the kicked-in door, according to testimony.

In the most crucial evidence, jurors last week saw Rivera’s video-taped confession in which he admits to shooting Taylor, escaping the home and later hurling the gun into the Everglades as they drove back home to Southwest Florida.

On Tuesday, Rivera — in halting testimony in which he almost always repeated back each question — sought to cast doubt on the prosecution’s case.

He insisted that he donned Nike Air Jordans that night, not Shox. When prosecutor Rubin asked where the sneakers were now, Rivera did not answer, nervously looking toward his lawyers as the courtroom observers murmured.

Rivera also claimed that detectives, during questioning at state police headquarters, repeatedly ignored his request for a phone to call his parents. At one point, he claimed Detective Juan Segovia started yelling, knocking over chairs. “I’m thinkin’ dude’s crazy,” he said.

In testimony last week, Segovia and other detectives said Rivera cooperated fully, was never threatened and repeatedly rejected a chance to call his family during the hours of interviews.

Read more Miami-Dade stories from the Miami Herald

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