In a move that would stave off the death penalty, Nelson Santoni pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, just weeks after his arrest for strangling his neighbor during a botched burglary in Northeast Miami-Dade.
But a judge won’t accept his admission — at least for now.
The reason: Miami-Dade prosecutors haven’t had a chance to meet and discuss the case with the relatives of Brenda Lee Henderson, the 52-year-old woman slain in the bloody attack in late February. The family lives out of state and was not in court during Santoni’s arraignment last week.
“I’m required to balance not only the rights of your client, but also the rights of the victim,” Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Fleur Lobree said.
The standoff has sparked an unusual legal battle. Santoni’s lawyers have quickly filed an appeal to force the judge to accept the guilty plea, while prosecutors are scrambling to take the case to a grand jury and secure an indictment for first-degree murder that would mean Santoni would face the possibility of the death penalty.
Santoni “does not need the state’s consent to plead guilty” to second-degree murder, according to his appeal filed to the Third District Court of Appeals last week.
“He is very remorseful and it rare to have a client, so early in an case, willing to give up his legal battle and put the victim’s family at ease,” said his attorney, Assistant Public Defender Edith Georgi.
For now, Santoni is charged with second-degree murder. If the judge accepts his guilty plea, she could sentence him to up to life in prison.
Miami-Dade prosecutors could present the case to a grand jury as early as Wednesday. If the cases goes forward as a death-penalty case, without a quick plea, years of litigation could follow.
The judge has set another hearing for Thursday.
In Miami-Dade, it is extremely rare for someone charged with murder to plead guilty so quickly. It has happened only once in recent years.
In May 2011, Reynerio Alonso pleaded guilty at arraignment to fatally stabbing Elizabeth Palomino of West Kendall, during a botched burglary. Needing money to go gamble, Alonso had broken into her home, and attacked her after she came home unexpectedly.
Alonso pleaded guilty less than a month after the murder. His defense attorneys had not yet reviewed the evidence in the case but Rivero insisted on pleading guilty, which spared him from possibly facing a sentence of death down the road.
“This is the best way to preserve Mr. Alonso’s life,” his attorney, Assistant Public Defender Patrick Nally, told the court at the time.
A Miami-Dade judge expressed surprise at the guilty plea, but grilled Alonso at length to ensure he really wanted to plead guilty. Three years later, Alonso has not filed any appeals or sought to undo his sentence.
Santoni, 36, is also represented by the Public Defender’s Office. And like in the Alonso case, the evidence appears overwhelming.
He spent nearly 10 years in prison for an armed robbery in Pinellas County. He was freed in 2010 but returned to state custody for seven months after a conviction for forgery.
Since then, Santoni has racked up arrests on minor charges including drug possession, petty theft and loitering.
He lived with his girlfriend in a small apartment building on the 1500 block of Northeast 118th Street. Henderson, the owner of a beauty salon, lived a couple doors down in the same building.
In late February, her family called Miami-Dade police to report that Henderson had vanished and stopped answering phone calls. A missing persons detective eventually found her decomposing body inside her ransacked apartment.
She had been strangled with a cord.
While Miami-Dade detectives and technicians pored over the scene on Feb. 26, Santoni showed up to his home. Police let him into his unit and immediately noticed Henderson’s belongings inside.
He confessed to strangling here when she walked in as he was looting her house, according to authorities, and even led detectives to where he had abandoned Henderson’s car, which he had stolen.
At last Wednesday’s arraignment, prosecutor Marie Mato filed a formal charge of second-degree murder. It is common for prosecutors to file the lesser charge, while preparing to take go to the grand jury for an indictment of first-degree murder.
In Florida, grand juries — which do not always meet regularly — must issue indictments for all cases of first-degree murder cases. In such cases, Miami-Dade prosecutors normally seek the death penalty until the case goes to trial or a committee of prosecutors decides to waive the option of execution.
At last week’s hearing, Georgi announced that Santoni wanted to plead guilty. But for the plea to go through, the judge must question Santoni at length to determine if he is admitting his guilt freely.
After prosecutors objected, Judge Lobree refused to go further. “I am not willing to accept the plea at this time,” she said.