One of the young men accused in the machete murder of a Homestead student on Friday rejected a plea deal that could have meant as little as 10 years behind bars.
Joseph Cabrera, 24, told a Miami-Dade judge that he did not wish to accept the deal offered by prosecutors, who want him to cooperate against four others charged in the high-profile slaying of 17-year-old Jose Amaya Guardado.
For now, Cabrera faces the death penalty. And even if the prosecutors were to waive execution as a possibility, Cabrera still faces a mandatory sentence with no possibility of release were he to be convicted of first-degree murder at trial.
“I would have no choice but to sentence you to life in prison,” Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Dava Tunis told him during a hearing. “A sentence of life in Florida means life — you would never leave state prison.”
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The Miami-Dade State Attorney’s office will allow the offer to stand until at least Jan. 18, when Cabrera and another defendant begin a key hearing to see if they are eligible to be released on bail before the trial.
Whether that proceeding, known as an “Arthur hearing,” takes place that day remains to be seen. The Miami Herald plans to appeal the judge’s decision to close the courtroom to the public.
Tunis this week ruled that the “pervasive publicity” surrounding the case would only intensify were the hearing to remain open to the public, jeopardizing the right to a fair and impartial jury at a trial down the road. Prosecutors are expected to detail the confessions of four defendants; those statements have been sealed by the court under Florida law.
The judge’s decision is highly unusual. The Arthur hearing for Cabrera and defendant Desiray Strickland was scheduled to begin on Friday, but Tunis delayed the proceedings to give the Miami Herald and WPLG-ABC10 time to file an appeal with the Third District Court of Appeal.
Cabrera and Strickland are charged along with Kaheem Arbelo, Christian Colon and Jonathan Lucas.
They are accused of conspiring to murder Guarado, whose viciously stabbed body was discovered in June 2015 in a shallow grave in the woods of Homestead. All of them, including the victim, attended Homestead Job Corps, a live-in school and vocational training program run by the U.S. Department of Labor.
Cabrera’s attorneys insist that their client was not there that day and is innocent.
Judge Tunis on Friday revealed that prosecutors had twice approached Cabrera’s attorneys about the plea deal. Under the agreement, investigators would debrief Cabrera, and could not use anything he said against him in court.
Under the deal, prosecutors would drop the first-degree murder charge and he would be convicted of conspiracy to commit murder. After his testimony against the others, Judge Tunis would sentence him to anywhere between 10 and 30 years in prison.
Tunis implored Cabrera to “reflect” on the offer over the coming days, while it is still on the table.
“This plea will never be offered to you again,” Tunis said. “That’s what the prosecutors said, not me. I cannot force the prosecutors to re-offer this plea.”