One decade after he kidnapped, raped and executed a South Miami teen, Joel Lebron is one step closer to Death Row.
A jury on Friday afternoon convicted the Orlando man of the April 2002 murder of Ana Maria Angel, 18, a crime that shocked South Florida.
Jurors deliberated just over an hour.
The 12-person jury will return next week to hear more evidence and decide whether Lebron — whom prosecutors consider the ringleader of the five men arrested — should be executed, or spend his life in prison.
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“For me, he was the worst. He was the head of the group,” Angel’s mother, Margarita Osorio, told reporters after the verdict. “He was the one who shot. He did the most damage to Ana Maria.”
After a decade of legal wrangling — including the trials and convictions of three co-defendants — the jury’s decision was not surprising.
The evidence against Lebron proved overwhelming, and included a full confession, ample DNA evidence and an unsettling crime-scene video that depicted the interstate-side brush where Angel was murdered.
Lebron and four other men had driven to South Beach from Miami, and after trying to sneak into a nightclub, settled on robbing someone to get money to continue partying, prosecutors said.
Their targets: Angel and boyfriend Nelson Portobanco, then 17, who were weeks away from graduating from South Miami High.
The couple had gone to Bayside Marketplace for dinner to celebrate their four-month anniversary. Angel then asked to go to South Beach to stroll on the sand.
Afterward, the two were walking back to their car when Lebron — wielding a revolver — forced them into the group’s extended cab Ford F-150.
Inside their truck, driving north, the men robbed the couple, then forced them to begin kissing.
“It’s hard to believe. They demanded a sex show. They started to tease them and toy with them,” Miami-Dade prosecutor Reid Rubin told jurors during his closing argument.
Then the men gang-raped Angel, forcing Portobanco to the floorboard.
“Once inside the truck, they wanted everything. They wanted it all,” Rubin said. “They wanted property. They wanted her body. They wanted their lives.”
On the side of Interstate 95 in Broward County, the men beat, kicked and stabbed Portobanco, who played dead as the men drove off. Bloodied but alive, he flagged down a motorist, who called 911.
In Palm Beach, prosecutors said, Lebron marched Angel down an embankment on the side of I-95, forcing her to kneel in the thick brush next to a sound barrier wall.
Rubin dramatically showed jurors the revolver, clicking it twice to mimic the two “dry” shots Lebron fired because the gun had only one bullet.
As Angel begged for her life, her hands clasped in prayer, Lebron’s third attempt succeeded, killing the teen instantly with a bullet to the brain.
A massive police task force cracked the case because one of the men used Portobanco’s phone to call an Orlando number. Detectives tracked the number to the apartments of brothers Hector and Victor Caraballo.
There, officers found Angel’s purse, shoes and ID, plus Portobanco’s wallet.
Investigators later arrested Lebron at another apartment complex, and found his boots splashed with blood — DNA tests showed the blood belonged to Portobanco.
The scientific evidence played a major role in the case. Lebron’s DNA matched semen found inside Angel, clearly showing he raped her, Rubin said.
Lebron’s attorney Jeffrey Fink suggested to jurors that perhaps the DNA sample had been contaminated.
The defense certainly had an uphill battle. Fink attempted to shift the blame to Lebron’s co-defendants, suggesting that he was less culpable because they had been the ones to originally plan the trip from Orlando to South Beach
Fink also blasted the investigation’s lead detective, who placed an audio recorder on the wrong setting, losing Lebron’s taped confession. The detectives nevertheless testified about the chilling details of the confession.
“The reliability of the single most important piece of evidence, they destroyed,” Fink told jurors.
This was not Lebron’s first trial — an earlier one started Sept. 10. But Miami-Dade Circuit Judge William Thomas declared a mistrial after a Miami Beach detective accidently mentioned to jurors that a co-defendant had been convicted, a fact jurors are not supposed to know.
As in the first trial, these proceedings featured heart-wrenching testimony from Portobanco and Osorio, who recalled the last time she kissed her daughter goodbye, hours before the kidnapping.
For Osorio and Portobanco’s mother, Friday’s verdict was bittersweet.
“It’s been hard reliving this tragedy for the past few days” Portobanco said.
Said Osorio: “I still have a great pain. It’s first-degree murder, and my daughter was still the victim. But at least, we know he won’t hurt anybody else.”