The confounding legal saga of the Escobar brothers, accused of murdering Miami Officer Victor Estefan in March 1988, took yet another unexpected twist in court Monday.
Just three days after Dennis Escobar had agreed to plead guilty at a hearing later delayed because his brother, accused along with him, initially had trouble understanding the deal, Escobar surprisingly rejected an offer that would have spared him a possible death sentence.
Dennis Escobar’s trial will continue in front of a jury next week.
“Playing games is what he’s doing,” said Estefan’s son, Angel Estefan, who cursed at Monday’s sudden proceedings and stormed out of the courtroom.
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Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Leon Firtel wouldn’t say Escobar “orchestrated” the last-minute change of heart, but said he was “troubled” that the man changed his mind just days later.
“How much of this is by design I don’t know,” Firtel told lawyers.
Prosecutors say Dennis Escobar, wielding a .357-caliber revolver, shot Estefan to death during a traffic stop in Little Havana. Douglas Escobar was driving his brother in a stolen car and ordered Dennis to shoot the cop, the state alleges.
The brothers previously were convicted and sent to Death Row in 1991, a conviction later overturned by the Florida Supreme Court.
Changes in the case have been swift in the past week-and-a-half:
* Prosecutors on Feb. 17 discovered a previously unknown police audio tape in which Dennis Escobar tells a Miami detective in 1988 to speak to his lawyer. The tape hurt the credibility of the case’s lead detective, Jorge Morin, who long claimed Escobar agreed to waive his right to remain silent before confessing in detail days later.
With the case damaged, prosecutors offered to waive the death penalty if Escobar, 52, pleaded guilty and accepted a life prison term.
* The defense, with the state’s support, asked for a mistrial – but Judge Firtel refused. He ordered lawyers to pore over every piece of evidence in dozens of boxes to make sure there were no more items that could impact the case.
*After days of behind-the-scene negotiations, both sides agreed on a plea deal to be taken Friday afternoon. Douglas Escobar was rushed to court from his cell at a West Miami-Dade jail.
Under the deal, each brother was to plead guilty to second-degree murder and a sentence of 55 years. Under 1988 Florida law, that means each brother would spend only about 18 more years in prison for the Estefan murder.
After that, the brothers would have been returned to California, where they must each serve consecutive life sentences for trying to kill highway patrol officers there two months after the Miami murder. They are, however, eligible for parole in California.
On Friday afternoon, as Estefan’s relatives and Miami homicide detectives gathered, the deal appeared to be set. But when Firtel began asking Douglas Escobar standard questions about pleading guilty, the man refused to accept the offer.
Douglas, who had a history of mental illness, clearly could not grasp the plea deal. In mixed English and Spanish, Douglas told the judge he didn’t want to go to trial — but he didn’t think he was guilty because “he didn’t shoot nobody.”
Firtel gave Douglas’ lawyers the weekend to talk him. Early Monday morning, his mind sharp with medication, Douglas told his lawyers he understood and indeed wanted to plead guilty.
Two court-appointed psychologists interviewed him Monday, morning. “He’s stable, well organized mentally,” one of them told the judge.
Then, another bombshell: Brother Dennis Escobar no longer wanted to plead guilty.
“He wishes to go to trial,” attorney Phillip Reizenstein told the judge.
The abrupt decision spurred Estefan’s son to leave court, slamming the door. Estefan’s sobbing widow, Delia Estefan, left too.
“There is no end in sight,” she said afterward.
Escobar’s decision also means no plea for brother Douglas, who must now await trial. The plea offer was good only if both took the deal.
Dennis Escobar’s defense attorney is now asking for the man’s confession — the key component of the evidence against him — be thrown out because of the newly discovered audio tape.
But first, Morin and two former prosecutors on the case are expected to testify about what they know of the tape. Lawyers do not believe it was turned over to the defense before the original 1991 trial.