March 19, 2013

Mistrial declared in Miami police killing

Jurors said the conduct of the lead detective in the case was questionable, but four jurors could not vote to acquit Dennis Escobar of first-degree murder.

Jurors generally agreed: The conduct of a key homicide detective “was shady” during the investigation into the 1988 slaying of Miami Police Officer Victor Estefan.

Eight jurors wanted to acquit Dennis Escobar of the 1988 killing of the popular Miami patrolman. But four, bothered by key facts of Escobar’s role in the slaying — some detailed in testimony from his own wife — couldn’t agree to a not-guilty verdict

And so the jury, after about two full days of deliberation, hit an impasse. A judge Tuesday declared a mistrial. And Escobar, more than two decades after first landing on Death Row for the Estefan murder, will face yet another trial in a long-running and often-frustrating legal saga.

“We all agreed Officer Estefan died a hero,” jury foreman Paul Dunn said in an interview. “But we would have liked a more clear-cut case.”

Tuesday’s mistrial ended a five-week proceeding that featured a series of strange twists — most notably, the surprising discovery of a police audio tape that depicted Escobar invoking his constitutional Miranda right to remain silent.

The tape, along with the inconsistent testimony of Miami Detective Jorge Morin, weighed on jurors.

“I think we got a very unanimous feeling that the Miranda [waiver] and testimony of Detective Morin was shady,” said Dunn, who declined to reveal his own vote. “But other issues were hard to put out of some jurors’ minds.”

Those issues: Escobar’s own wife testified that she took her husband and his brother to a West Miami-Dade canal to dump the revolver believed used to kill Estefan during a Little Havana traffic stop. Inside a stolen Mazda believed used in the crime, police found a fingerprint belonging to Escobar’s brother, Douglas, whom prosecutors said ordered his sibling to shoot Estefan.

But jurors could not get past the lack of eyewitnesses.

“We couldn’t come to a conclusion as to whether Dennis was there not,” juror Carl Vivolo said. “It was really, really tough.”

Escobar and his brother were first convicted of Estefan’s murder in 1991 and sent to Death Row, a decision later overturned by the Florida Supreme Court.

The brothers are serving life sentences for trying to kill highway patrol troopers in Southern California.

Dennis Escobar, the alleged gunman charged with first-degree murder, faced the death penalty if convicted in Miami. Opening statements finally began Feb. 14.

But three days later, Morin himself discovered the audio tape in an evidence box. In the recording Escobar, in a prison hospital bed, told the homicide detective to talk to his lawyer.

Morin alerted stunned prosecutors. With the case suddenl weakened, prosecutors offered Escobar a plea deal, which would have spared each brother the death penalty and shipped them to California, to serve their life sentences, after they served another 18 years in Florida.

But Escobar, after first agreeing to the plea, backtracked. Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Leon Firtel allowed Escobar’s alleged confession to stand after the detective and a California trooper testified that Escobar, after asking for a lawyer, later changed his mind, agreeing to confess.

At trial, Escobar’s defense lawyer, Phil Reizenstein, honed in on Morin’s seeming contradictions in testimony over the years, including whether he lied when he previously claimed Escobar had no lawyer.

“I never profess to be perfect in any investigation,” Morin acknowledged from the stand after hours of sparring. “When you’re dealing with investigations, you’re dealing with the human element.”

The strategy worked. Jurors almost immediately asked to hear a read-back of Morin’s testimony, which took more than a day.

By Monday, Estefan’s emotionally taxed relatives — who dutifully attended every day of trial — were girding themselves for an acquittal.

For Delia Estefan, the hung jury was another slap in the face after years of agony. She showed up every day, her purse holding her husband’s posthumous coronel police badge, still in his tattered leather wallet.

“So much struggle for nothing. So much suffering, for what?” Delia Estefan said. “I hope to God there is justice and that one day Escobar will pay.”

As for Douglas Escobar, he is still awaiting trial. And now a new trial date must set for Dennis.

“We thank the jury for doing their job,” Reizenstein said. “While this has been hard for my client, we also know it was hard for Officer Estefan’s family. I said it in closing, that Officer Estefan died a hero, and that this was not about him and I meant it.”

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