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Mistrial declared in South Beach rape and murder case

A veteran homicide detective’s slip of the tongue prematurely ended the murder trial against the accused shooter in the shocking 2002 gang-rape and murder of a South Miami teen.

The gaffe: Miami Beach Detective Larry Marrero, on the witness stand, casually mentioned to jurors that one of Joel Lebron’s co-defendants had earlier been convicted — a fact that jurors are not supposed to know.

Miami-Dade Circuit Judge William Thomas, who has presided over the trials and convictions of three of five of the accused, called the remark “highly prejudicial” and declared a mistrial.

Thomas apologized to Lebron — and relatives of Ana Maria Angel, the 18-year-old who was abducted, sexually assaulted and executed with a bullet to the back of the head alongside Interstate 95 in April 2002.

“I know the emotional stress each of them has to go through every time we step up to the plate,” Thomas said.

The delay, however, won’t be very long. Lawyers in the case will begin choosing a new jury on Wednesday.

Charged with first-degree murder, sexual battery and other felonies, Lebron is facing the death penalty if convicted.

On Thursday, Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle said that her lawyers — who ultimately did not oppose the move for a mistrial — and Angel’s mother recognized it was better to start a new trial than hope an appeals court does not overturn a conviction.

“It’s very unfortunate and it’s really regrettable but you can’t take a chance at all in a death penalty case,” Fernandez Rundle said.

Angel and her boyfriend, Nelson Portobanco, were abducted from South Beach and held hostage in a truck after a midnight stroll on the beach. The case shocked South Florida and sparked a massive manhunt for Angel, whose body was found two days later.

The Orlando-area men had gang-raped Angel, while Portobanco had his throat slit and was dumped on the side of Interstate 95 in Broward County. Prosecutors say Lebron shot and killed Angel off I-95 in Palm Beach County as the young woman begged for her life.

Lebron confessed to the murder, prosecutors say, and is linked to the crime by DNA and fingerprint evidence.

Lawyers in the case took two days to pick a jury, and Thursday were in their second day of testimony. Angel’s mother, Margarita Osorio, and Portobanco had already relived the tragic events on the witness stand.

It wasn’t their first time testifying at trial.

Three of the five men — including Lebron’s nephew, Jesus Roman — have already been convicted at trial, but to avoid any prejudice, jurors are not supposed to know the results of those cases.

During direct testimony Thursday, Detective Marrero was explaining his interactions with Roman’s mother during the intense search for the killers. Marrero said she was “the mother of a previous defendant that’s convicted now.”

The unsolicited comment surprised prosecutor Reid Rubin, who had not asked Marrero about the outcome of Roman’s case. A jury convicted Roman in September 2008 and he is serving a life prison term.

“It was as unanticipated by me as it was for you,” Rubin said to Thomas.

Prosecutors told the judge that the detective’s error was harmless because of the overwhelming evidence against Lebron, but they did not oppose a mistrial.

Marrero, a longtime Miami Beach detective, left the courthouse without commenting. A Miami Beach police spokesman declined to comment.

The detective’s role in the case has already come under scrutiny because Lebron’s detailed audio confession was lost when he put a tape recorder on the wrong setting.

Defense lawyer Jeffrey Fink, during cross examination, asked Marrero whether a conviction of Lebron would erase the stain of having “screwed up” the confession tape.

“Can I be honest here?” Marrero told him. “My ego means nothing here. I just want what’s right is right.”

During a break, Fink asked for a mistrial. Judge Thomas had “no choice” but to start over, Fink said.

“It was a hard choice to make because it seemed like it was a very good jury that was listening carefully and understood what the job would be,” Fink said afterward.

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