March 4, 2013

Judge: Jurors can hear about confession in killing of Miami officer

A judge rules that despite the last-minute discovery of an audio tape, Dennis Escobar’s interview with police was not illegal.

After weeks of intense legal drama triggered by the discovery of a long-lost police audio tape, jurors will get to hear how a Miami man allegedly confessed to murdering a police officer in 1988.

A judge on Monday ruled that Dennis Escobar’s confession was not illegal.

The decision came two weeks after the unmarked cassette tape surfaced showing that Escobar, three days before giving a detailed confession, invoked his constitutional right to remain silent.

But Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Leon Firtel ruled that while Escobar repeatedly told a detective to speak to his lawyer, the suspect then backtracked with a “re-invitation to officers” to return three days later.

The decision was a significant victory for prosecutors, whose high-profile case had threatened to unravel in a most unexpected twist.

“I’m happy,” said Delia Estefan, the widow of slain Miami Officer Victor Estefan. “I can see that there will be a conclusion. When all this done, my husband can rest in peace and so can I.”

Escobar, who faces possible execution, was originally convicted and sent to Death Row in 1991, an outcome later overturned by the Florida Supreme Court.

His re-trial began last month. Trial is now expected to resume Wednesday.

Both sides had earlier asked for a mistrial, but the judge refused, placing jurors on standby during two weeks of legal wrangling.

In that time, plea negotiations for Escobar, and his brother also charged in the crime, fell apart. The plea of 55 years in prison would have spared both the death penalty.

Escobar then withdrew his request for a mistrial, instead opting to face trial with this jury.

Monday’s decision followed a lengthy hearing Friday in which Escobar’s defense team asked to have the confession thrown out.

The chief witness on Friday: Retired Miami Detective Jorge Morin, who had always insisted that Escobar agreed to waive his “Miranda” rights before detailing how he fatally shot Estefan during a traffic stop in Little Havana.

But after Escobar’s new trial for murder began, Morin himself discovered the audio tape while digging through one of scores of evidence boxes. He immediately alerted prosecutors — a fact he pointed out Friday.

“It took 25 years for this tape to come to light, don’t pat yourself on the back too much,” defense attorney Phil Reizenstein told him.

Two former prosecutors in the case, Abe Laeser and Michael Band, also testified Friday that Morin never revealed to them before the 1991 trial that the suspect had talked about an attorney during an interview in California.

After the Estefan murder, Escobar and his brother had fled across country, where they were wounded in a confrontation with California Highway Patrol troopers north of Los Angeles.

Morin and another detective traveled to the prison hospital on April 29, 1988,where the Escobars were detained. There, Morin attempted to speak to Escobar alongside California investigators.

No one disputes that Escobar agreed to speak about the attack on California troopers in that first meeting — that confession is captured on another lengthy audio cassette tape.

But on the seven-minute tape, as he is being pressed on the Estefan murder, Escobar tells investigators: “Let’s stop talking then ... anything [Morin] can talk to my attorney.”

Reizenstein said he believed that the tape depicted Morin badgering Escobar well after he had confessed to California detectives.

But Morin, in testy exchanges with Reizenstein, insisted that the excerpt was actually pulled from the middle of a lengthier interview with California investigators.

At the end of the longer tape, Escobar clearly tells California detectives that Morin can return to talk about the Miami case, prosecutor Penny Brill told the judge Monday.

“He thinks he can manipulate him,” said Brill, the head of the State Attorney’s legal unit. “He thinks he can talk his way out of it.”

Three days later, Morin returned to the hospital, where Escobar waived his right to remain silent and – after fits and starts – confessed to shooting the Miami officer.

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