More than six years after Miami Detective James Walker was gunned down in a tragic case of mistaken identity, prosecutors, police officers and his family waited in nervous agony.
His accused killer, Andrew Rolle, had already gotten one mistrial earlier this year. A second jury, late Tuesday, told the judge it was deadlocked at 6-6.
Then on Wednesday morning, the 12 jurors demanded to see video footage of trial testimony of three key witnesses whose credibility had been attacked by the defense.
“It was real bad,” the slain detective’s father, James Walker Sr., said. “We just had to pray.”
But the jury, in a verdict read in the early afternoon, erased years of anguish with one phrase: guilty of first-degree murder. In a courtroom packed with police officers, the elder Walker smiled broadly in near disbelief and relief.
“I feel a thousand times better,” he said
Rolle, 27, was convicted after some nine hours of deliberations over two days. Miami-Dade prosecutor Abbe Rifkin, her eyes teary, embraced Walker’s relatives and detectives who had worked the case.
“The truth came to light,” she said. “We’re proud of this jury. It took a lot of courage.”
Rolle was also convicted for shooting at two other people just before killing Walker. He faces a mandatory sentence of life in prison, to be meted out Oct. 27 by Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Marisa Tinkler Mendez.
He is already doing 50 years in prison on convictions for two separate robberies.
The trial was an emotional final chapter in the killing of Walker, who was just 30 when he was gunned down on a chilly night in January 2008.
The soft-spoken, rail-thin officer was a Miami native who worked as a domestic-crimes detectives after completing two college degrees. The night he was shot and killed, Walker had just left work and was driving to visit his estranged wife at her home in North Miami Beach.
He was soon to cross paths with Rolle, a reputed gang associate hellbent on exacting revenge against a rival, Ricardo Ajuste, who had stolen a Tech-9 machine pistol from him.
At trial, jurors heard that pal Jonathan Blanchard – driving a white Ford Taurus – dropped Rolle off in an alleyway near where Ajuste was believed to be hanging out. Rolle, wielding an AK-47 assault rifle, emerged onto the street and began shooting at a man he believed was Ajuste.
But Rolle’s gunfire actually hit an innocent bystander, Wesnor Senobe, who ran off as he was chased by the gunman. A woman was also wounded by the bullets. When he was done shooting, Rolle ran back to the alley. But prosecutors said he did not know that Blanchard, spooked by the gunfire, had driven off.
At that very moment, Detective Walker had just pulled up – and he was behind the wheel of a nearly identical white Ford Taurus.
When Rolle tried to get into the Taurus, Walker pulled his pistol and got off one errant shot. Prosecutors said Rolle shot the detective with a hail of bullets, hitting him in the face and killing him instantly.
Walker’s slaying sparked a massive investigation by North Miami Beach and Miami police. At first, detectives arrested Ajuste for the murder because he was caught running from the gunfire – a mistake, prosecutors now admit.
Rolle was later arrested. At one point during the legal run-up, Rolle claimed self-defense – saying he had was protecting himself from what he believed was a gun-wielding aggressor. The defense later dropped the request.
His first trial began in June, but ended in a mistrial after the defense accused prosecutors of withholding a transcript of testimony from a key witness.
At this month’s re-trial, the prosecution’s case was built largely on the testimony of Blanchard and another associate to whom Rolle confessed. A third man – a fellow jail inmate to whom Rolle allegedly made incriminating statements – also testified.
Defense attorney David Peckins countered that no forensic evidence – fingerprints or DNA – linked Rolle to the crime scene. The jurors clearly weighed the defense’s argument.
On Wednesday morning, they asked to view video of the three key witnesses’ testimony at trial – to gauge the “credibility” and “demeanor” of the men.
Judge Tinkler Mendez denied the request because court officials do not video tape court proceedings; jurors apparently believed they could view footage shot by a TV news camera in court.
Rolle himself appeared confident, at one point asking a Miami Herald photographer to snap an image of him seated at the defendant’s table. A few hours later, the entire jury had finally agreed on a unanimous verdict.
“It’s a great day, not just for the City of Miami, but for James Walkers’ parents,” said Miami Cmdr. Eunice Cooper, head of the homicide unit. “They have been through a lot and they have finally gotten justice for their son.”