A former casino security worker serving a life sentence linked to the 2011 murder of an armored truck guard has lost his bid for freedom, though a judge was found to have mishandled his trial in Miami federal court.
Uri Ammar hoped that U.S. District Court James Lawrence King would grant his release after a federal appeals court recently ruled he violated his right to a speedy trial and concluded that the indictment against the defendant for his insider role in the Calder Casino and Race Course killing must be dismissed. On Wednesday, King threw out the charges but also exercised the authority to allow prosecutors to refile them against Ammar for a new trial.
Ammar, 31, formerly of Hollywood, was re-arrested Thursday on a criminal complaint at the Miami Federal Detention Center. A new indictment is pending. The constitutional protection against double jeopardy — being charged twice for the same crime — did not apply because the appeals court ruled on a technicality and voided his trial. It’s as if the trial never happened and the prosecution of Ammar is starting all over again.
In his 25-page decision, King acknowledged he made a mistake in not establishing why he ordered Ammar to go to trial more than a year after he was indicted instead of within 70 days under the speedy-trial rule. But the judge also found the defendant contributed to the delay because he did not ask to be tried separately from four other defendants who agreed to the postponement — including the shooter of the Brink’s courier at the Miami Gardens casino.
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“The charges against [Ammar] are among the most serious chargeable under the United States code,” King wrote in his decision. “The blame for the admittedly severe delay beyond the speedy-trial period is largely borne by [the] defendant, and [he] has failed to establish he was prejudiced by the delay to an extent that outweighs the public’s interest in re-prosecution.”
While the four defendants struck plea deals resulting in sentences of five years to life in prison, Ammar went to trial by himself in October 2012. Jurors found the former Calder security manager guilty of conspiracy, robbery and a related firearm offense, but not guilty of playing a role in the murder of the 27-year Brink’s guard, Alvaro Lopez Ramos, on Aug. 21, 2011.
Ammar’s attorney, Marc Seitles, who did not represent him at the first trial, argued in court papers that the indictment should be thrown out and his client freed because of the “prejudice suffered by Mr. Ammar due to the speedy-trial violation.” He warned that allowing the U.S. attorney’s office to file new charges would lead to Ammar being tried more than five years after he was indicted.
Seitles said that, although his client was not given his freedom, he was “thrilled” his life sentence was dismissed and that he can fight the charges again. “We will be exploring all of our options,” he said.
In September 2011, prosecutors urged the judge to delay the initial trial beyond the 70-day period to allow the Justice Department “to make a reasoned decision about whether to seek the death penalty against all the accused [defendants],” Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Gilfarb said in court papers.
The prosecutor said the federal appeals court noted in its November 2016 ruling that all but Ammar agreed to delaying the trial for one year so both sides could address the proposed death penalty. In the end, the Justice Department chose not to pursue it.
But King blundered when he failed to detail his reasons for agreeing to delay the trial, according to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. If the judge had given his reasons why the delay was in the best interest of the public and “the ends of justice,” the trial could have been legally postponed for a year.
Prosecutors said Ammar, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran who was a security worker at the Calder casino, collaborated with other insiders on the robbery plot. Ammar escorted the armored truck courier as he was carrying a bag stuffed with $345,000 in cash. The shooter, Vladimir Louissant, 30, of Miami Gardens, approached him outside the casino. The courier drew his gun and pointed it at Louissant, who shot first. The Brink’s guard returned fire, striking the shooter in the leg. Louissant fired again.
Lopez Ramos died from two gunshot wounds to the head.
At trial, Ammar testified that Louissant and the other robbers threatened to hurt him and his family if he did not help them in the plot.
But Gilfarb, the prosecutor, argued that while the judge made a mistake in delaying Ammar’s trial without spelling out the reasons, the defendant could still use his “duress defense” in a new trial. “They have not demonstrated to this court that their ability to present the same duress defense, or any other defense, has been compromised by the delay,” Gilfarb argued in court papers.
The Calder case has been an ordeal for the U.S. attorney’s office and family of the late Lopez Ramos, but not only because of the judge’s speedy-trial violation. King also did not properly sentence Louissant, the shooter, to life in prison. In the first proceeding, the judge didn’t allow him and his lawyer to object, so the sentencing was not upheld on appeal. In the second, the judge didn’t give a reason for issuing the life sentence, so it was overturned again.
King will consider the shooter’s life sentence for a third time in late April.