The Florida Supreme Court on Thursday overturned the conviction of a man accused of breaking into a posh Miami Lakes home and strangling a mother of three.
The reason: A Miami-Dade judge refused to boot a potential juror who said she could not be fair and impartial because as a child, a burglar broke into her home and stole Christmas gifts.
The high court’s opinion means Rafael Matarranz, 37, will get a new trial for the 2003 high-profile slaying of Lidia Giangrandi.
He had been serving a life sentence after jurors convicted him of first-degree murder and burglary with assault.
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Miami-Dade police said Matarranz, a petty burglar, rode his bicycle into the gated Miami Lakes community and broke into the home of Giangrandi, 46, a mother lauded in the community for her work with homeless people.
Matarranz strangled Giangrandi after she awoke and started screaming inside the house in the 6900 block of Gleneagle Drive, police said. After killing Giangrandi, Matarranz escaped, taking several credit cards and valuables, such as jewelry.
Homicide detectives tracked down Matarranz, who was not believed to be acquainted with Giangrandi, after he gave his sister a credit card stolen from Giangrandi’s house. He gave a full confession to police.
At his November 2009 trial, he claimed the confession was coerced.
The Florida Supreme Court overturned the verdict because Circuit Judge Mary Barzee Flores, who has since retired from the bench, refused to boot the potential juror who had been victimized by a burglar as a child.
The potential juror said she would harbor a “grudge” against Matarranz because of the experience. “It was during the holiday season and it was just crazy and it just makes me sad about it and it beings back bad memories,” she told the court.
During the jury selection process, lawyers can ask a judge to strike a possible juror “for cause” because they have indicated they cannot be fair and impartial.
Through repeated “skillful” questioning, Judge Barzee Flores, however, “embarrassed” the juror into saying she could be fair, justices said in their opinion.
Ultimately, the woman did not even serve on the jury that convicted Matarranz. His defense lawyer used a “peremptory challenge” to strike her from the panel — lawyers are generally allowed 10 challenges to excuse a juror for any reason as long as it is not because of race or gender.
But the court ruled that one of those challenges could have been used to excuse one of the jurors that wound up convicting Matarranz.
Quoting Atticus Finch, the lawyer hero of the classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird, justices said the Matarranz case was important in maintaining “the integrity of our courts, the soundness of our juries, and the men and women who ‘make [them] up.’”
Two justices dissented, saying “branding” of jurors based on their life experiences was “wholly unjustified.”
“Most human beings possess the capacity to overcome bad experiences and the ability to cast aside opinions and attitudes that — upon reflection — are shown to be irrational or unwarranted,” Justice Charles T. Canady wrote.