Miami-Dade Courts

NFL star Sean Taylor’s generosity lured killers, prosecutor says

 

dovalle@MiamiHerald.com

Lured by seeing thousands of dollars in cash inside Sean Taylor’s home in Palmetto Bay, a teenager masterminded the burglary that led to NFL star’s fatal shooting, a prosecutor told jurors Tuesday.

Trial began Tuesday for Jason Mitchell, the second defendant to face a jury in the November 2007 slaying of the one-time University of Miami and Washington Redskins player.

“He decided that he was going to find that pot of gold in Sean Taylor’s house,” Miami-Dade prosecutor Marie Mato told jurors.

Mitchell’s trial comes seven months after another jury convicted the suspected shooter, Eric Rivera, of second-degree murder and armed burglary. He was sentenced to almost 60 years in prison.

The slaying of the hometown sports legend shocked South Florida. About 3,000 people, including the entire Washington team and the NFL’s commissioner, attended Taylor’s funeral in Miami.

The Redskins defense took to the field with only 10 men for the first play of their next game — a tribute to the hard-hitting free safety who once starred at Gulliver Prep.

Also awaiting trial: Charles Wardlow, 24; and Timothy Brown, 22. A fifth defendant, Venjah Hunte, 26, already has pleaded guilty and could testify against Mitchell.

Mitchell is charged with armed burglary and first-degree felony murder.

Under Florida law, anyone who participates in certain felonies that lead to a death can be convicted of murder. That means Mitchell, now 25, could face life in prison for murder, though he did not pull the trigger.

In his opening statement, defense attorney Robert Barrar shifted the blame away from Mitchell.

“Eric Rivera shot and killed Sean Taylor,” he told jurors.

Prosecutors believe the burglary was Mitchell’s idea.

In the fall of 2007, Mitchell had stayed at Taylor’s home for four days while attending a birthday celebration for the football player’s sister. Mitchell, of Fort Myers, was a friend of the boyfriend of Sasha Johnson, Taylor’s sister.

During those four days, Mitchell hung out with Taylor, who even paid the teen $300 to help him mow the lawn and clean the home’s pool deck, according to the state.

At the birthday party, he spied Johnson opening a gift from her brother — $10,000 in cash tucked in a purse. He also saw Taylor’s gift to another sibling, the same amount of cash.

Weeks later, Mitchell broke into Taylor’s home but came away empty-handed, Mato told jurors. He decided to return, but this time with his four friends.

Prosecutors say he, Rivera and the others drove from Fort Myers, believing Taylor was not home.

But Taylor, nursing an injury at home as his team played in Tampa, confronted the intruders after one of them kicked in his master bedroom door. Rivera shot Taylor in the leg, and he bled to death, Mato said.

Taylor had grabbed a machete he kept in the bedroom for protection and was shot while protecting his infant daughter, his girlfriend, Jackie Garcia Haley, testified Tuesday.

Prosecutors say Mitchell confessed in detail to his role in both break-ins, and that phone records also placed him at the scene. A police crime-scene investigator also noted that the tread of Mitchell’s black Reebok sneakers, seized from his home, was “consistent” with a footprint found at Taylor’s house.

“There is overwhelming evidence in this case,” Mato said.

The trial is expected to last into next week before Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Dennis Murphy.

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