Ronald Salazar, who raped and murdered his 11-year-old sister a decade ago inside their South Miami Heights home, won’t be serving life in prison after all.
Instead, a Miami-Dade judge on Friday ruled that Salazar must serve 40 years in prison — with the possibility for a shortened sentence after 25 years behind bars.
The resentencing decision, compelled by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling, means Salazar could walk free from prison in his mid 50s. Tears in his eyes, he thanked Circuit Judge Ellen Sue Venzer, who had previously sentenced Salazar to an automatic life term in prison under then-Florida law.
“Thank you for being compassionate,” the 24-year-old sobbed. “I appreciate it. Thank you, your honor.”
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Judge Venzer paused before replying. “Mr. Salazar, for you, I can only hope you can take advantage of each and every opportunity for counseling and whatever else is offered to you.”
Salazar was just 14 years old when he strangled, raped and slit the throat of Marina “Estefani” Salazar in July 2005 inside their home. It was precisely his young and fragile state of mind – and a tortured relationship with parents who left him for 12 years in El Salvador before bringing him to Miami – that led to his second chance.
“People are not born bad,” Venzer said Friday.
The decision was surprising for prosecutors who had asked the judge to re-impose Salazar’s life sentence.
Prosecutors are now mulling whether to appeal the decision. Miami Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle said late Friday: "We respect Judge Venzer but are disappointed in the decision. The defendant brutally, in a premeditated way, raped and murdered his sister — if ever a case called for a life sentence, this is the one."
Salazar got the new hearing after the U.S. Supreme Court in 2012 banned mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole for juveniles convicted in murder cases. The reasoning: Science has shown young people’s brains have not fully developed and that juveniles are prone to impulse and peer pressure.
The decision, in a case called in Miller v. Alabama, left room for life sentences but ordered judges to first hear evidence of a killer’s youth.
Salazar was the first defendant in Miami-Dade County to be resentenced as a result of the high court’s decision.
Across Florida, a state that long ago abolished parole, trial and appellate courts have differed on what exactly is the proper punishment for juveniles convicted in murder cases.
In Miami, one teen gang member who shot and killed an infant at point-blank range got life in prison without the possibility of parole. In the same case, the juvenile getaway driver got life with the chance for parole after 25 years — a throwback to before 1994, when the sentencing laws changed. A parole commission still exists, but only to review old cases.
Judge Venzer herself gave 60 years to a teen named Benito Santiago, who fatally shot a couple in front of their young daughter in Liberty City, a case now under appeal from prosecutors.
Florida lawmakers 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.
Jurors convicted Salazar in 2009, deliberating just over two hours. At the time, Judge Venzer also gave him life in prison for the rape.
Salazar’s parents had left him in El Salvador as they journeyed to the United States. For the first decade of his life, relatives raised him in amid crushing poverty in an area dominated by street gangs. He had little contact with his parents before finally joined them and their new children in Miami.
During a five-day sentencing hearing last month, Salazar sobbed as he testified about his mental state then and seething resentment of his parents. “My whole life has been messed up,” he cried.
Judge Venzer, clearly torn about the weight of her decision, noted last month she wanted nothing more than to protect society. But she said: “You would have to admit that 14 year-old kid had a horrific first 14 years.”
On Friday, she noted that his parents and child welfare workers missed numerous changes to help Salazar, who was briefly hospitalized after threatening to kill himself and his sisters. He had originally been slated to go to a treatment center but his father decided against taking him.
Venzer called Salazar a “a very, very ill young man.”
His defense attorneys noted that Salazar had become a tutor in prison and had a mostly blemish-free record behind bars.
“He has worked really hard to change,” Miami-Dade Assistant Public Defender Laura Rojas said. “As our experts testified, if he continues on this path, he could be fit to reenter society.”
But prosecutors insisted that Salazar was a manipulating killer “like out of a bad slasher mover” who boasted about the killing and still harbored anger toward his parents. The state asked for life without the chance for parole
“This is a person you cannot let loose on the streets,” Assistant State Attorney Reid Rubin told the judge.