A U.S. Supreme Court decision banning mandatory life sentences for juvenile killers got Ronald Salazar his first chance to publicly describe the years that lead up to the most disturbing of crimes:
At age 14, he strangled his 11-year-old sister, sawing her throat from ear to ear, then raping her as she lay dying in the bedroom of their South Miami Heights home.
He’d had a tough childhood, Salazar told Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Ellen Sue Venzer in court during a first-of-its-kind resentencing hearing on Monday.
“My whole life has been messed up,” a weeping Salazar said.
His parents abandoned him in El Salvador, leaving him in squalor with abusive relatives. At 10, he traveled in car trunks and crossed the Arizona desert for three days to enter the United States. And when he was finally reunited with his parents and new siblings in Miami, they treated him like an outcast even though he just “wanted to feel what it was to be a normal kid.”
But, even after a decade behind bars to think about his crime, Salazar acknowledged none of it was an excuse for his savagery.
“I feel like I don’t deserve a second chance but I want to prove I’m not that animal,” Salazar told Venzer during tearful testimony. “I wish I could say I didn’t do it. But the truth is, that I did it and I don’t have no answers to why.”
At one point, the court called a break after the bearded, 24-year-old inmate began crying while recalling how his mother told him he “ruined” their family.
It is his youth and upbringing in El Salvador that the judge must consider in re-thinking a new — and possibly lower — sentence for Salazar, who was originally sent to prison for life the horrifying murder.
Salazar’s sentence was reversed after the U.S. Supreme Court in 2012 banned mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole for juveniles convicted of murder cases. He will be the first juvenile defendant in Miami-Dade to be re-sentenced because of the court’s decision in Miller v. Alabama.
Tuesday marks the fifth and final day of the hearing. His parents, Samuel and Nuvia Salazar, have not attended the proceedings.
The couple came to the United States from El Salvador in 1991 but left their son with his grandmother because he was too young to make the dangerous overland crossing. Ronald Salazar did not join them until more than a decade later.
After a few turbulent years in Miami, the troubled teen killed sister Marina “Estefani” Salazar. He wiped the knife clean, returned it to its kitchen drawer and created a cover story about two men storming the house and killing the girl. At his trial in 2009, prosecutors had ample DNA evidence and chilling videotaped confession. Salazar claimed he was insane and suffered a mental breakdown.
During the re-sentencing last week, defense attorneys sought to portray Salazar as deeply scarred by his parents’ decision to leave him in El Salvador. Former lawyers, acquaintances and psychologists testified that Salazar grew up without contact with his biological parents. The judge also heard that Salazar ran with street gangs and was sexually abused at the age of 7.
His parents finally sent for him in what turned out to be a month-long journey to be smuggled into the United States. Once in Miami, Salazar testified, his parents grew wary of him.
“I just wanted them to see everything I had gone through. I thought they were going to embrace my pain, that they were going to say, ‘I’m sorry, we left you there that whole time by yourself,’ ” Salazar said. “It was nothing like that. They said they had a rougher life, that I didn’t have the right to complain. I felt rejected.”
Salazar also claimed that his parents told him that a witch doctor had removed a “voodoo” spell from his father only to cast it upon the child as he was in the womb.
“It certainly did not make him feel welcome, wanted or part of that family,” psychologist Lisa Potash testified. “It made him feel there was something wrong with him.”
Salazar lashed out, frequently getting in trouble at school and threatening his sisters and father. He was ultimately committed to a hospital for a psychological evaluation after threatening to kill himself and his family. Salazar killed his sister in July 2005, soon after his release.
Prosecutor Reid Rubin, during cross examination, pointed out that Salazar had repeatedly boasted of the murder, dreams of torturing his father and has gang connections — and that he could still have his parents killed even from behind bars.
Rubin pressed Salazar to explain his mindset during the crime. “Why did you rape her?”
The defendant paused. “I really do wish I had an answer to that question,” he said. “There is no reason. She was sweet. She never did anything to me.”
Salazar, his eyes red, shook his head. “I don’t want to get into the details,” Salazar insisted.
By then, the judge had already heard that Salazar told others that he raped her because once behind bars, he’d never be with another woman.
Also in jail, Salazar claimed to idolize another Miami teen killer: Michael Hernandez, who at 14 stabbed his classmate to death inside a bathroom at Southwood Middle School.
Hernandez, like Salazar, is awaiting a new sentence under the high court’s Miller decision.
The Supreme Court opinion barred the mandatory life prison terms because science has shown that young people’s brains are not fully developed and that they are susceptible to impulses and the influences of others.
A judge can still mete out life in prison, but only before considering the youth of a defendant. Across Florida, appeals courts have split on whether to give young defendants tough sentences that are less than life — or revert back to before the sentencing laws were changed in 1994, when parole would be possible after 25 years.
The state long ago effectively abolished the parole system, but a commission still exists to examine longtime inmates eligible for release because their cases date back to the early 1980s or before.
Legislators last year tweaked the law to allow for judicial “review” after 25 years for juveniles convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison — a sort of quasi-parole system. But the change in the law does not apply to cases from before July 1, 2014.