March 13, 2013

Escobar cop-killing case in the hands of Miami-Dade jury

Jurors will resume deliberations Thursday in the case against Dennis Escobar, who faces the death penalty if convicted.

Twenty-five years after Miami Officer Victor Estefan was gunned down during a traffic stop in Little Havana, a jury will again decide the fate of the man accused of his murder.

Jurors on Wednesday afternoon deliberated less than two hours in the case against Dennis Escobar, 52, who is charged with first-degree murder. They’ll return Thursday morning to resume deliberations.

Lawyers on Wednesday offered their final arguments to jurors after a trial that featured a series of unexpected legal twists.

Miami-Dade prosecutors say Escobar confessed to fatally shooting Estefan, then dumping the revolver in a canal and fleeing to California with his brother, who drove the stolen car used in the crime. He and brother Douglas Escobar were originally convicted in 1991, a decision later overturned.

“The confession is corroborated by so much evidence,” prosecutor Reid Rubin told jurors. “It all fits together logically, compellingly.”

But the confession was tainted by the conduct of the case’s lead investigator, defense attorney Phil Reizenstein told the jury.

Miami Detective Jorge Morin repeatedly lied under oath about how he obtained the confession and ignored Escobar’s wish to remain silent, the lawyer said.

“At some point, a pattern emerges of somebody who has no respect for the law,” Reizenstein said.

He added: “We get to see what Morin thinks of the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution of the United States. He doesn’t think it’s worth the paper it’s printed on.”

The closing arguments came more than four weeks after a previously undiscovered police audio threatened to derail the state’s case. Weeks of legal wrangling followed.

With its case damaged, prosecutors offered a plea deal that would have spared Escobar and his brother, who is still awaiting trial, the death penalty. But Escobar, at the last minute, rejected the plea.

The case took another unexpected turn Friday when Morin, while on the stand, let it slip that Escobar had been accused of an unrelated attempted murder in California, a fact jurors were not supposed to know.

His defense team chose not ask for a mistrial after each juror, questioned individually, assured the judge they would only consider evidence in the Miami murder.

As for the seven-minute audiotape, it depicted Escobar — who was detained in a California prison hospital one month after Estefan’s murder — invoking his right to remain silent. Morin himself discovered the tape Feb. 17 in an evidence box and alerted stunned prosecutors.

Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Leon Firtel ruled that confession was admissible, saying Escobar later invited Detective Morin to return to speak to him the following week.

Three days later, prosecutors said, Escobar waived his right to remain silent but denied involvement. Morin and his partner left, only to be called back by Escobar via a hospital guard.

In the second interview, Escobar said he wasn’t involved, but that his brother, Douglas, confessed to have shot the officer. Again, detectives left, again to be called back.

In the third encounter that day, Escobar finally confessed in detail, Rubin told jurors.

Escobar defense lawyer nevertheless hammered away at Morin, who claimed he forgot about the tape but insisted the confession days later was legitimate. Escobar did not want his confession recorded, Morin said.

“We don’t know anything about what could have happened” during the eventual confession, Reizenstein said. “We only have Jorge Morin’s word for it.”

Escobar’s wife, Fatima Berrios, also testified during trial that she took the brothers to a car dealership where they stole the Mazda later believed used in the crime.

On the night of the shooting, Berrios said, her husband and his brother returned home, acting nervous. Later, she took them to a West Miami-Dade canal to dump the revolver used in the crime, she testified.

“At the end of day, it’s not a complicated case,” Rubin said. “It really is an easy decision.”

His defense attorney said prosecutors had only proved that Dennis Escobar helped his brother steal a car and a dump a weapon.

“They were never able to prove he was in the car that night,” Reizenstein said.

The Escobar brothers were originally convicted and sentenced to death. But the Florida Supreme Court tossed the conviction, saying the brothers should have been tried separately.

The men are also serving life sentences in California for trying to kill highway patrol officers there. Troopers shot and wounded them.

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