Criminal court

Killer of Miami cop in 1988 pleads guilty but escapes death penalty

 

dovalle@MiamiHerald.com

The man who shot and killed Miami police Officer Victor Estefan in March 1988 accepted a plea deal Wednesday, escaping the death penalty more than a year after he was almost acquitted at trial.

Dennis Escobar, 54, pleaded guilty in a deal that essentially ends his time behind bars in Florida, but will ship him to California to serve a life sentence for trying to murder state troopers there.

Before a courtroom packed with retired and active police officers, including Miami’s police chief, Escobar declined to speak. But Estefan’s grieving widow, son and grandson minced no words.

“You’re an assassin without shame,” Delia Estefan, 76, told him. “You have no heart.”

Said Angel Estefan Jr., 29, the officer’s grandson: “You have no conscience. I hope you rot in hell. The devil will greet you.”

Wednesday’s plea deal concludes a 26-year legal saga that began in March 1988, when prosecutors say Dennis Escobar, wielding a .357-caliber revolver, fatally shot Estefan during a traffic stop in Little Havana. His brother, Douglas Escobar, was driving him in a stolen car, and ordered him to shoot the patrolman.

Authorities captured the brothers in Southern California after a shootout with highway patrol troopers. The brothers were convicted there and sentenced to life in prison.

In the Estefan murder case, a Miami-Dade jury convicted the Escobars in 1991. They were sent to Death Row, but the state’s high court later overturned the convictions.

Dennis Escobar finally went to trial a second time in March 2013. But the case was dealt a severe blow when its lead detective discovered an audio tape in an evidence box that showed that Dennis Escobar, during a police interview, had invoked his constitutional right to remain silent.

With the case suddenly weakened, Miami-Dade prosecutors offered the Escobars a plea deal in which they would have served another 18 years behind bars in Florida.

But Douglas Escobar, 54, who had a history of mental illness, could not grasp the plea deal at first. Days later, he agreed, only to see his brother back out — and the deal was off for both of them.

Ultimately, the trial went on. But with the Miami detective’s credibility damaged, the jury could not agree on a verdict and a mistrial was declared. Eight of 12 jurors wanted to acquit Dennis Escobar.

In a plea deal earlier this year, brother Douglas Escobar accepted a prison term of 36 more years in a Florida prison. But under 1988 sentencing rules, his term is over and he is now in California serving consecutive life sentences there.

Dennis Escobar was sentenced to 37 years in prison. But with credit for time served, plus “gain time” under the law at the time of the slaying, he has all but completed his stint in Florida. He will be sent to a California prison within the next couple of weeks.

Both brothers will eventually be eligible for parole in California, although officials there would probably decide to keep them behind bars.

“This guy got away with murder,” Angel Estefan Sr., 52, the slain man’s son, told Miami police officers as they streamed out of the courtroom.

Many of the veteran officers on hand Wednesday worked with Estefan, a popular patrolman, during the 1980s.

Decades ago, Estefan would watch out for a group of kids playing football in the streets of Little Havana. One of those youths was now-Miami Police Chief Manuel Orosa, who later became Estefan’s co-worker.

After the hearing, Orosa traded hugs and handshakes with Estefan’s relatives.

“It’s a long day coming,” Orosa said. “It’s not what they wanted. They wanted life in prison. It’s not a happy day, but at least they get some closure.”

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