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Judge tearfully sentences man to Death Row for South Beach rape and murder

When told he would be executed, Joel Lebron remained stone-faced.

But around him in the Miami-Dade courtroom, emotions ran high. The mother of Ana Maria Angel, the teen Lebron raped and shot execution-style, squeezed her eyes shut and sobbed.

Angel’s boyfriend, who survived the vicious attack, turned red-eyed.

And Miami-Dade Circuit Judge William Thomas wept as he finished describing the brutality of the murder, then meted out the “ultimate penalty.”

“To Mr. Lebron, God bless you,” the sobbing Thomas said as he hurriedly left the bench, but not before addressing Angel’s mother. “To the family, God bless you.”

Thursday’s sentencing capped a decade-long crime-and-legal drama that shocked South Florida.

Lebron was one of five Orlando men who kidnapped Angel and her boyfriend, Nelson Portobanco, as the couple finished a romantic stroll on South Beach in April 2002.

After robbing them, the men gang raped 18-year-old Angel, then slit Portobanco’s throat and left him on the side of Interstate 95 in Broward County. He survived and alerted police.

Alongside the interstate in Palm Beach County, Lebron and another man later 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 evidence against Lebron was overwhelming. Investigators traced a phone call made by one of the men to an Orlando address, where the couple’s stolen belongings were found.

Lebron — who called himself “The Devil” during the attack — confessed in excruciating detail to investigators. His boots were also splashed with Portobanco’s blood, and his DNA was matched to semen found inside the victim.

Lebron was the final defendant to go to trial. Cesar Mena and Jesus Roman each got life in prison.

Thomas earlier sentenced Victor Caraballo to death. The Florida Supreme Court overturned the decision because of improper testimony allowed in at sentencing; he is awaiting a new sentencing hearing and could again receive a death sentence.

In October, his brother, Hector Caraballo, pleaded guilty and agreed to a 50-year prison sentence. He later asked to withdraw the plea, a move the judge denied.

Lebron’s attorney, Jeffrey Fink, called the murder a “terrible crime” but said his client’s death sentence was not fair in light of Hector Caraballo’s plea deal.

In Florida, corrections officials use lethal injection as the primary method of execution. As with all death penalty sentences, Lebron’s case will be automatically appealed.

Thursday’s death sentence was not unexpected — it’s rare for a judge to go against a jury’s recommendation.

In September, jurors convicted Lebron of armed kidnapping, armed sexual battery, attempted murder and first-degree murder. The same jury, by a 9-3 vote, recommended that Lebron be executed.

“It’s the penalty he deserved,” Miami-Dade prosecutor Reid Rubin said Thursday.

Lebron’s lawyers claimed that brain damage from a childhood car accident left him prone to impulses; they tried unsuccessfully to introduce evidence of the trauma through a controversial “brain mapping” technology.

Judge Thomas — who presided over all four trials of the men charged in Angel’s death — said Thursday that he did not believe the car accident “contributed” in any way to Lebron’s crimes.

Thomas read an extensive order, saying he gave “great weight” to the heinous and calculated nature of the crime. He described how Angel must have suffered a “heightened fear” as Lebron marched her to her death, then shot his weapon twice with no bullet firing. The third fire delivered the fatal bullet.

Afterward, Angel’s mother, Margarita Osorio, embraced teary Laura Adams and Christine Zahralban, with whom she shared a matching butterfly pendant — in honor of Angel’s favorite animal.

“For Ana, we’ve completed justice,” Osorio said.

Portobanco told reporters afterward: “It’s been very hard. I’m very happy with the results today.”