Criminal Courts

Jurors recess without verdict in trial of accused Sean Taylor shooter

 

pmazzei@MiamiHerald.com

A Miami-Dade County jury weighing the fate of the accused shooter of football player Sean Taylor wrapped up a full day of deliberations Thursday without reaching a verdict.

The 12 jurors will continue their discussions Friday in the case of Eric Rivera, 23, who has been charged with first-degree murder and armed burglary.

After spending nearly six hours in the jury room, jurors said they wanted to adjourn by 4 p.m. to be home for Halloween trick or treating. They had also deliberated for more than an hour Wednesday evening.

One of the jurors wore costume kitty ears to the courthouse Thursday. They will return around 9 a.m. Friday.

Before leaving Thursday, jurors locked themselves into the courtroom and reviewed Rivera’s videotaped confession, a key piece of evidence presented by prosecutors from the Miami-Dade County state attorney’s office during the two-week trial.

Rivera’s defense attorneys have countered that police officers under pressure to find a culprit in the high-profile murder coerced the confession, forcing Rivera, then 17, to accept responsibility for a crime he didn’t commit.

The only question jurors posed earlier Thursday asked Miami-Dade Circuit Court Judge Dennis Murphy and attorneys to clarify the legal criteria for determining if Rivera was a key player in the crime.

Under Florida law, if Rivera is considered a “principal” in the botched burglary that ended with Taylor’s death, then he can be convicted of first-degree felony murder even if jurors can’t ascertain whether he was the shooter. Just being present at the crime does not make someone a principal.

Rivera was charged for the November 2007 slaying of Taylor, then a hard-hitting safety for the Washington Redskins, in his suburban Palmetto Bay home. He faces up to life in prison if the jury finds him guilty.

Testifying on Tuesday, Rivera said he lied under oath when he again admitted to being the shooter in a previous 2011 court hearing. Someone else pulled the trigger, Rivera said Tuesday.

Rivera and four other young men had driven from Fort Myers to steal the stash of tens of thousands of dollars in cash they thought Taylor kept inside his house. One of the men had attended a birthday party for Taylor’s sister there and had seen Taylor give her as a present a purse stuffed with $10,000 in cash. The night of the burglary, the five men thought Taylor was with the Redskins, who were playing Thanksgiving weekend in Tampa.

But Taylor, who was rehabbing a sprained knee, was visiting family in South Florida, where he had grown up and starred on the football field for Gulliver Preparatory School and the University of Miami. It was the middle of the night and he was asleep with his girlfriend and their 18-month-old daughter when the intruders broke in.

Taylor grabbed a small machete he kept by the bed. When Rivera kicked open the door to the master bedroom, prosecutors say he saw Taylor and shot him in the groin. The bullet severed Taylor’s femoral artery. He died the next day.

The defense has portrayed Rivera as a tag-along who joined acquaintances in making the 2 1/2 hour drive across Interstate 75’s Alligator Alley but remained in the rented black SUV while the others entered the house on Old Cutler Road. Prosecutors have pointed to a jailhouse letter Rivera wrote and mailed to his cousin to try to get the relative to change a key witness’ testimony, and to footprints in Taylor’s house “consistent” with Nike Shox shoes prosecutors say Rivera wore.

As the alleged shooter, Rivera is the first of the five men to face trial. One of the remaining four co-defendants, Venjah Hunte, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in 2010 and will serve 29 years in prison. The others Timothy Brown, Jason Mitchell and Charles Wardlow — have pleaded not guilty and are awaiting their day in court.

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