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Jury: Death penalty for shooter in South Beach kidnap, rape, murder

So atrocious was the murder, so overwhelming the evidence, that Friday’s jury decision felt inevitable: Joel Lebron must die.

Miami-Dade jurors recommended, by a vote of 9-3, that Lebron should be executed for the rape, kidnap and execution of Ana Maria Angel, a South Miami High senior who hoped to become a teacher.

Lebron, 34, was one of five Orlando men who kidnapped Angel and her boyfriend in 2002 as the couple finished a South Beach moonlight stroll. Four men now have been convicted in the murder. A final defendant, Hector Caraballo, is awaiting trial.

Angel’s mother, Margarita Osorio, told reporters she was satisfied with the jury’s verdict — but knew the legal saga was far from over.

“We’re going to keep fighting. There is still one more trial,” she said.

The jury in Lebron’s case deliberated two hours Friday in deciding execution over life in prison.

Miami-Dade Circuit Judge William Thomas will ultimately deliver the final sentence at a later date, and rarely do judges stray from a jury’s recommendation.

The brutality of the crime shocked South Florida.

In April 2002, Angel and boyfriend Nelson Portobanco had gone to dinner to celebrate their four-month anniversary. Afterward, they walked on the sand in South Beach when they were kidnapped and robbed.

Lebron and the men gang raped Angel in the back of their truck, then slit Portobanco’s throat, leaving him for dead alongside Interstate 95 in Broward County. He survived and alerted police.

Alongside the interstate in Palm Beach County, Lebron and another man marched Angel down an embankment, into the brush near a sound barrier wall. Lebron shot Angel in the back of the head as she begged for her life, her hands clasped in prayer.

The case against Lebron was rock solid. Investigators traced a phone call made by one of the men to an Orlando address, where the couple’s stolen belongings were found.

Lebron confessed in chilling detail to investigators. His boots also had been splashed with Portobanco’s blood, and his DNA was matched to semen found inside the victim.

The crime was so galvanizing that his arrest, Lebron had to be separated from other inmates who threatened to kill him.

In pretrial motions, the state said Lebron tried to arrange the killing of a witness, and also threatened to attack a prosecutor. During trial, prosecutors added an extra security officer, seated behind them at all times.

Lebron’s first trial last month ended in a mistrial after a detective mentioned that one of his co-defendants had been convicted, a “prejudicial” fact that jurors weren’t supposed to know. Last week, another jury deliberated just over an hour in convicting him of first-degree murder, sexual battery and other felonies.

This week’s penalty phase offered two contrasting life stories.

Angel, who was to graduate weeks before her demise, was the captain of her school soccer team. Her plan was to join the Air Force, attend college and become a teacher to provide for her single mother.

She loved butterflies, Osorio told jurors: “It was her desire to have strong wings to be able to achieve her goals.”

As for Lebron, he grew up in a “crime-infested” housing project in a dangerous neighborhood in San Juan, Puerto Rico, defense lawyer Rafael Rodriguez told jurors.

He was the son of an abusive drunkard father who later was brutally murdered. As a 4-year-old, Lebron was hit by a car, damaging his head, affecting his ability to control his impulses, his lawyer said.

“He was like day dreaming,” his sister Emilia Roman testified Wednesday. “Always after the accident, he was distant. His body was present, but not his mind.”

Prosecutors, however, offered testimony from a neurologist who said a medical scan showed Lebron’s brain was fine.

Angel’s march down the embankment shows Lebron’s actions were premeditated, a “heinous, atrocious and cruel” spasm of violence deserving of the death penalty, prosecutor Reid Rubin told jurors Friday.

As Rubin spoke, he showed a graphic crime-scene video.

“He was having a good time. He enjoyed it. He wasn’t impaired,” Rubin said. “He chose to commit those crimes.”