After six years waiting for justice, the father of NFL football star Sean Taylor finally got the chance to speak directly to the young killer who broke into his son’s Palmetto Bay house looking for cash.
“A young man that wanted to take shortcuts took the shortcuts — and took a man’s life,” Pedro Taylor said, looking sternly at Eric Rivera Jr., seated feet away at the defendant’s table in a Miami-Dade courtroom.
Taylor, Florida City’s police chief, minced no words in describing the raw experience of dealing with his son’s death.
Hours after his son died, Pedro Taylor recounted returning to the stained hallway where police say Rivera shot the Washington Redskins star in the groin.
“I cleaned up every bit of the blood of my son,” Pedro Taylor said.
His words packed a powerful emotional punch in a hearing Thursday that finally ended a protracted legal battle that had drained family, friends, and supporters of the slain former University of Miami and Gulliver Prep safety.
A Miami-Dade judge sentenced Rivera, convicted of murder in November, to 57 1/2 years in prison for the slaying and break-in that cut short a promising life and career.
That means Rivera, a 23-year-old who was 17 at the time of the shooting, will likely not emerge from prison until after his 70th birthday.
Three other alleged participants are awaiting trial. A fifth defendant, Venjah Hunte, 25, already has pleaded guilty and will receive a 29-year sentence.
Prosecutors said Rivera shot and killed Taylor when he and four pals — not believing the football star was home — broke into Taylor’s home in November 2007. Taylor, who had been sleeping alongside his girlfriend and their young daughter, surprised the group as Rivera kicked in the master-bedroom door, authorities said.
Taylor’s girlfriend, Jackie Garcia Haley, recounted her “magical” life with her high-school sweetheart. Their daughter, also named Jackie, is now 6 years old.
“Every father-daughter day at school, my daughter has an empty seat next to her … because of Mr. Rivera,” Garcia Haley wrote in a letter read aloud to Judge Dennis Murphy, as the young mother herself sat in the back of the courtroom, her head buried in her hands.
Rivera, who had faced up to life in prison, offered a brief statement of remorse.
“I’m going to have to live with the consequences and I’m truly sorry for your loss ... I'm sorry,” he said.
Rivera, who confessed in a video-recorded statement to Miami-Dade homicide detectives, was initially charged with first-degree murder.
But last fall, jurors — who deliberated 16 hours over four days — could not agree unanimously that Rivera pulled the trigger. Instead, Rivera was convicted of second-degree murder without a firearm and armed burglary.
During the 11-day trial, jurors heard that Rivera and four other friends drove across Alligator Alley intent on raiding the thousands of dollars in cash they thought Taylor kept in his house on Old Cutler Road. One of the men had attended a birthday party there for Taylor's sister — and saw her open a gift of $10,000 tucked into a new purse.
Prosecutors also pointed to a letter that Rivera penned in jail to a cousin, asking him to pressure a key prosecution witness to change her testimony. Cellphone records tracked Rivera and the group’s phone calls from Florida’s west coast to the area near Taylor’s home.
And Nike footprints found at the scene — including on the kicked-in master-bedroom door — were “consistent” with the sneakers Rivera said he wore that night.
Rivera, however, took the stand in his own defense, insisting that Miami-Dade detectives coerced him into confessing to the murder. He claimed he only tagged along for the ride but never entered Taylor’s house.
“He's a sophisticated, manipulative criminal. There is no good reason to believe he’s going to change,” Miami-Dade prosecutor Reid Rubin told the judge Thursday.
During Thursday’s hearing, Judge Murphy noted a 2012 Supreme Court ruling, which bars automatic life sentences without the possibility of parole for juveniles convicted of murder and mandates that judges consider the youth of certain defendants when issuing sentences.
The sentence Murphy wound up doling out was by no means lenient, assuring Rivera will remain behind bars until he is an old man.
That was a disappointment for Rivera’s family. They and his lawyers talked about his good behavior growing up as a youth football player in Fort Myers, and how he has matured since being in prison.
“I don’t think it was appropriate he got life because he was a juvenile,” his lawyer, Chris Brown, said after the sentencing hearing. “But we were hoping for a lesser sentence.”