The trial of accused Miami cop killer Dennis Escobar took a stunning twist Tuesday when lawyers revealed that a 25-year-old police audio tape had surfaced that could taint the suspect’s confession.
The unmarked cassette tape, discovered in an evidence box Sunday night, appears to depict Escobar telling a Miami homicide detective that he wanted to talk to his lawyer.
The encounter contradicts the detective’s long-held story that Escobar, while in a jail hospital bed in April 1988, agreed to speak with him if he returned the following week. Escobar, prosecutors said, confessed in detail three days later to the murder of Miami Officer Victor Estefan.
The tape, which was immediately turned over to Estefan’s attorney Monday, has delivered enough of a blow to prosecutors’ case that they offered Escobar a deal: plead guilty and accept life in prison over a possible death sentence.
Escobar and his attorney, Phillip Reizenstein, will announce Wednesday morning whether they’ll accept the plea offer or ask the judge to throw out the confession.
Testimony in the long-awaited trial began last week. Jurors have been asked to return Wednesday afternoon.
Escobar, 52, is accused of fatally shooting Estefan after the veteran officer pulled him and his brother, Douglas Escobar, over in a stolen Mazda in Little Havana in March 1988.
Douglas Escobar, who’s still awaiting trial in Miami-Dade, is accused of ordering his brother to shoot. At the time, Douglas Escobar was wanted for armed robbery.
The Escobars originally were convicted and sentenced to death. But the Florida Supreme Court threw out the convictions in 1997, saying the brothers should have been tried separately.
At the time, the high court declined to throw out Dennis Escobar’s confession, but did chastise Miami homicide detectives for making “various misrepresentations of fact” during their interview with him.
The Escobars fled to California after the police shooting, where they were wounded in a shoot-out with highway patrol troopers about 180 miles north of Los Angeles.
A passenger in the car told authorities that the Escobars admitted to killing a Miami police officer.
Within hours of the revelation, Miami homicide detectives Jorge Morin and Bruce Roberson flew to California to interview the men as they lay in jail hospital beds.
The detectives, along with California investigators, approached Dennis Escobar on Friday April 29, 1988. Morin claimed that he read him his Miranda rights, which informs a suspect that he can remain silent.
Over the course of decades of court hearings, Morin always claimed that Escobar agreed to speak without a lawyer — but only if the detectives returned the following Monday.
That day, the detectives returned and again informed Escobar of his right to remain silent. He agreed, and denied involvement in the case.
But as they left the jail facility, Escobar had corrections officers hail Morin and Roberson to return to the hospital room. In that second encounter, Escobar denied being in the stolen car, blaming his brother. Again, the detectives left.
Corrections officers again stopped Morin and Roberson before they left, saying Escobar had agreed to talk once more. In that third interview, Escobar admitted to shooting the Miami cop on his brother’s order.
Miami detectives then tracked down the stolen car used in the shooting, finding Douglas Escobar’s fingerprint inside.
Both brothers were sentenced to life in prison for the attacks on the California Highway Patrol troopers.
Throughout many court hearings, no audio had ever surfaced of the first encounter between Morin and Escobar, who only speaks Spanish.
In preparing for this week’s trial testimony, Morin was looking for audio of a Miranda warning delivered by California detectives investigating the attempted murder of the highway patrolmen.
In one of dozens of boxes of evidence, Morin found an unmarked, undated cassette. It featured about eight minutes of a Spanish-language exchange between Morin and Escobar.
The retired detective immediately told prosecutors. Assistant State Attorney Reid Rubin told the judge Tuesday.
The discovery was a surprise to Rubin, the case’s lead prosecutor.
“I didn’t think it has been played in any prior trial, or disclosed” to the defense, Rubin told the judge.
Whether previous prosecutors or the detectives knew of its existence remains unclear.
But if the tape indeed shows that Escobar invoked his right to remain silent during his first encounter with Miami detectives, then the confession three days later is not valid, Reizenstein told the judge.
Reizenstein asked for the rest of Tuesday to get an exact transcription and translation of the tape before he and Escobar decide whether to accept the life-in-prison plea.
If Escobar does not accept the plea offer, his lawyers can ask Circuit Judge Leon Firtel to throw out the confession, and Morin likely would have to testify about the tape at a hearing.
His confession is a key element in the state’s case against him. If the confession survives a legal challenge, defense lawyers would likely attack Morin’s credibility.
“No confession, no case,’’ Reizenstein told jurors last week during opening statements. “This case boils down to that simple proposition.”