Twice, Jeromy Muñoz has used his pistol to kill. And twice, he claimed self-defense.
The baby-faced Muñoz escaped arrest for gunning down a man inside a Little Havana apartment after an argument over money.
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Three years later, Muñoz shot and killed Oscar Gutierrez, himself armed, on a rain-soaked and deserted street in Little Havana. Muñoz told police he believed he was being robbed in what he called “a Mexican standoff.”
But this time, Muñoz found himself jailed for murder. The reason, Miami-Dade prosecutors said a hearing last week, is that video surveillance from a nearby Goodwill store showed his story was a lie. And his teenage companion, who witnessed the killing in November, admitted that Muñoz was actually the robber looking to “jack” Gutierrez.
At the hearing, prosecutors Melissa Roca and Warren Eth said the slain man was killed “in cold blood.”
“The best witness is the video,” Eth said.
Muñoz, 24, a used car salesman, is now awaiting trial in Miami on charges of second-degree murder. It’s the latest self-defense case in Florida, where the controversial Stand-Your-Ground law has been criticized for encouraging shoot-first vigilante justice and freeing murderers.
Last week, Circuit Judge Diane Ward found prosecutors had enough evidence to keep him behind bars before trial. And despite the video, he is sticking to his story – that he was defending himself against an armed man in a public place where he had every right to be.
“This is a classic case of self-defense,” defense lawyer, Oliver Morales, told the court.
For over a decade, Florida’s Stand Your Ground law has proven a hurdle for police and prosecutors. The 2005 law eliminated a citizen’s duty to retreat before resorting to using deadly force. It also gave judges – not juries – greater leeway to grant “immunity” to someone they find acted in self-defense.
In Miami, judges have cleared at least six people of using deadly force in homicide cases. That includes one man who chased, then fatally stabbed a car-radio thief. In the most recent case, a judge freed a Miami woman who shot and killed an unarmed man at a strip-club parking lot.
And in a case that reverberated in legal circles, a Miami appeals court freed an Opa-locka man who fatally gunned down two unarmed men during fisticuffs in a Chili’s parking lot; he claimed he thought one of them was reaching for a weapon.
The law came under national scrutiny in 2012 when police initially declined to arrest neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman after he shot and killed Miami Gardens teen Trayvon Martin during a scuffle north of Orlando. A specially appointed prosecutor later charged Zimmerman, and a jury acquitted him of a second-degree murder charge.
In his first killing in July 2012, Muñoz was never charged because authorities could not disprove he acted in self-defense.
He claimed that Robert Cantillo, 23, came to his Little Havana apartment to confront his brother “over money,” according to a Miami police report. He said Cantillo pulled a gun and pointed it at his brother, forcing him to pull his own weapon and fire.
Muñoz fled the scene, but eventually cooperated with homicide detectives. Florida’s so-called Castle Doctrine gives residents broad latitude to use deadly force inside their own home, and the 2005 law change gave carte blanche to assume shoot even unarmed intruders.
Other people in Muñoz’s apartment corroborated the account, according to a police report.
The decision not to charge upset Cantillo’s family, who doubts he ever pulled the gun. “Of course his family is going to back him up, ” said the victim’s sister, Christine Fraga. “But how do you prove it? We were very upset. My brother was killed on his son’s fifth birthday.”
As for Gutierrez, he grew up in Little Havana, a reserved and shy man who had worked as a phone operator for a service that arranges transportation for elderly people. He’d worked there for 10 years, patiently chatting with elderly clients who took to him like a son.
“He liked being there for the people” said friend Kristina Rueda-Perez, 28. “He was a very good listener and you felt like you could tell him anything.”
Said his mother, Xiomara Gutierrez: “He was a quiet kid. He never bothered anybody.”
Gutierrez, 31, had been the victim of a bullet before — his own. In 2006, Gutierrez was cleaning his .22-caliber pistol in his bedroom when it accidentally went off, piercing his face under his eye. He spent eight days in the hospital. Most of the bullet remained lodged in his head, although he retained his vision, suffering occasional headaches.
He was also an avid artist and video gamer. The night Gutierrez died, he had driven to a friend’s home in Little Havana to hang out and give him $420 to buy a PlayStation 4. That morning was Black Friday, the big shopping day after Thanksgiving.
Gutierrez left the home walking to his car parked on Southwest Eighth Street at Ninth Avenue. What happened next – at least, the different versions of what happened – unfolded in a bail hearing last week in Miami-Dade circuit court.
Just past 2:30 a.m., a motorist called police after hearing a string of gunshots. He pulled over to see Gutierrez crumpled on the sidewalk, Muñoz kicking his body.
Muñoz himself was wounded, grazed in the left elbow. At the hospital, Muñoz told a police detective that Gutierrez, a stranger to him, bumped him on the street. The two glared at each other. Gutierrez flashed a weapon, forcing Muñoz to fire his own weapon.
A few days later, Muñoz came to the Miami police station to give a sworn statement. This time, his story was more detailed. He claimed that he and 17-year-old Briknic Mena – described in court as his “side chick” – were strolling in the rain, looking at art in the windows of the Eighth Street galleries.
“No one looks at art at 2:30 in morning,” prosecutor Eth said in court. “This was the defendant and his girl looking for trouble.”
Muñoz told Miami Detective George Gil that suddenly he heard someone say “todo” —everything in Spanish — which he took to mean he was being robbed. The two flashed guns at each other.
Muñoz claimed that he pointed his weapon at Gutierrez, who began running away. But when he took his eyes off the man for a split second, shots rang out and suddenly his left elbow suddenly exploded “like a bag of water.”
“I squeezed off four rounds,” Muñoz told the detective in a tearful taped audio statement. “I remember my rounds hitting their mark when I heard him making a sound that he got hit. I was aiming center mass.”
Mena was also wounded in the leg, by gunfire. At first, Mena corroborated Muñoz – but with an added twist. She claimed Gutierrez tried to rob them by explicitly “demanding all their stuff.”
But the grainy, dark video footage taken from the nearby Goodwill store, played in open court last week, showed a different chain of events. Muñoz and Mena lurk on the street as Gutierrez walks from around the corner.
Muñoz and Mena approach and stop Gutierrez, who never runs. Suddenly, Muñoz opens fire. Several bullets hit Gutierrez in the stomach, with others exploding the water on the puddled street.
“At any point, do you see the victim shoot first,” prosecutor Melissa Roca asked the detective in court last week.
“No,” Gil said.
The footage shows Gutierrez did not fire at a fleeing Muñoz until he was laying on the ground, mortally wounded. The video also shows Muñoz returning moments later, already wounded, and begin kicking the dying man.
Eventually, Miami police brought back Muñoz for yet another interview, to confront him with the video. He stuck to his story.