March 18, 2013

Deadlocked jury in Miami police murder asks to go home, return deliberating Tuesday

Jurors will return Tuesday to deliberate whether Dennis Escobar is guilty of slaying Officer Victor Estefan during a traffic stop in March 1988.

The roller-coaster murder trial of Dennis Escobar took another twist Monday after jurors announced they were deadlocked - then asked to return Tuesday for more deliberation.

Escobar, who is facing the death penalty, is accused of fatally shooting Miami Police Officer Victor Estefan in March 1988.

On Monday afternoon, the foreman told Circuit Judge Leon Firtel in a 1:45 p.m. note that jurors were not close to reaching a unanimous verdict.

“I don’t see it changing either,” he said.

Firtel implored them to deliberate more before he considers declaring a mistrial.

Shortly before 4 p.m., the foreman sent back another note: “Although the conversations have been fruitful since we were sent back in, we feel we all would benefit from a good night’s rest and continue tomorrow.”

Firtel excused them until Tuesday. The 12-person jury began deliberating last Wednesday afternoon.

Escobar and his brother were first convicted of Estefan’s murder in 1991 and sent to Death Row – a decision later overturned by the state’s high court.

“I don’t know what to think anymore,” Estefan’s widow, Delia Estefan, said after court Monday. “Pain, frustration is what I feel. The days feel like years.”

The seeming stalemate in the jury room adds another storyline to a sometimes-surreal five-week re-trial that also included the discovery of a bombshell police audiotape that threatened to doom the state’s case.

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.

But that confession was tainted by the conduct of the case’s lead investigator, Jorge Morin, who repeatedly lied under oath and ignored Escobar’s wish to remain silent, according to the defense. The police audio tape, discovered in an evidence box during trial, depicted Escobar invoking that right.

Whether Escobar asked to remain silent — or later backtracked and indeed agreed to speak to Miami detectives — has clearly weighed on jurors.

At their request, jurors spent most of Thursday and Friday listening to a court reporter read back trial testimony of the case’s lead detective, as well as that of Escobar’s wife.

Early Monday, the jury asked in a note for the legal requirements for someone waiving their right to remain silent. The judge reminded them to look at the jury instructions, and recall the evidence presented at trial.

The trial already has been on the verge of a mistrial twice before.

After detective Morin himself discovered the audio tape and alerted prosecutors, the defense asked for a mistrial, a request the judge initially denied. Defense attorney Phil Reizenstein later withdrew the request.

And during his testimony before jurors, Morin let it slip that Escobar and his brother, also awaiting trial in the slaying, had been charged with attempted murder in California - a fact jurors were not supposed to know. (The brothers have life prison terms for attacking highway patrol troopers there).

Judge Firtel questioned each jurors about their ability to be fair and to only consider evidence in the Miami murder. He did not declare a mistrial.

The trial also featured a failed plea deal that would have spared the brothers the death penalty. The deal fell apart first when brother Douglas Escobar could not grasp the terms of the offer. Then, Dennis Escobar backed out and pushed forward to a trial.

And perhaps the strangest moment: after Escobar complained that jailers had failed to give him medication for anxiety, a corrections doctor gave him with a dose that made the defendant giggly while at the defense table. “To speak plain English, he’s high,” his lawyer said.

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