Miami-Dade County

Accused killer of Canes, Redskins star Sean Taylor finally heads to trial

Sean Taylor, a University of Miami football legend and at only 24 a rising star for the Washington Redskins, was shot to death six years ago in a slaying that shocked the nation.

Now, after repeated legal delays, the young Fort Myers man accused of pulling the trigger is finally headed to trial.

Tuesday marks the opening of jury selection for Eric Rivera, the first person to go to trial in the high-profile November 2007 slaying. He is one of five men accused of breaking into Taylor’s Palmetto Bay house during a botched burglary that turned deadly.

Rivera, 23, is facing life in prison if convicted of first-degree murder and armed burglary,

Awaiting future trials: Charles Wardlow, 24, Jason Scott Mitchell, 25, and Timothy Brown, 22. The fifth defendant, Venjah Hunte, 25, already has pleaded guilty and may testify against the others.

The sudden, senseless death of the home-grown star and new father triggered an outpouring of emotion in South Florida. Some 3,000 people, including the entire Washington team and the commissioner of the National Football League, attended Taylor’s funeral in Miami, which filled an auditorium at Florida International University.

The Redskins defense took to the field with only 10 men for a first play in their next game — a tribute to the hard-hitting free safety.

But since the suspects were arrested a few days after the killing, the case has slowed to crawl.

Scheduling conflicts and Rivera switching attorneys several times have delayed court-room proceedings. Police, lawyers and even Taylor’s relatives have been prohibited from speaking to the media because of a gag order issued by Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Dennis Murphy soon after the arrests.

Jury selection is expected to last most of the week.

“It is sometimes said that justice delayed is justice denied,” said the Taylor family lawyer, Richard Sharpstein. “But in this case, it’s better late than never and justice will be delivered. The Taylor family has full confidence in Judge Murphy and the prosecution team.”

Before his murder, Taylor, the son of Florida City Police Chief Pedro Taylor, had been a standout athletic star in South Florida.

In 2000, Taylor — while playing running back, defensive back and linebacker — helped lead Gulliver High to a state championship. A top-rated prospect, Taylor signed with the University of Miami and was one of four freshmen to play on the 2001 national championship team. He led the nation with 10 interceptions in 2003 and was named first-team All-American.

The Redskins selected Taylor as the fifth overall pick in 2004. He became a starter by his third game and he went on to become a defensive force — notching 129 tackles, one interception and three forced fumbles in 2006.

But on Nov. 11, 2007, Taylor suffered what would turn out to be a fateful sprained knee in a game against Philadelphia. On the weekend of his death, Washington was playing at Tampa Bay, but Taylor had come home to Palmetto Bay to rehab his knee.

The burglars, according to police evidence released previously in the case, did not think Taylor, 24, would be home when they drove from Fort Myers to South Miami-Dade.

The shooting, according to records, had its roots in a party thrown at Taylor’s house by the football player’s brother and sister the month before the break-in. Mitchell, one of Rivera’s pals, had attended the party and witnessed the sister bragging about money their brother had given them, according to police reports.

On the night of Nov. 25, 2007, police believe the group all teen-agers at the time — drove in a rented SUV to Miami. At about 1:40 a.m. the next morning, they broke into the home looking for a stash of cash, according to police reports.

Rivera, according to police reports, kicked in the master bedroom door where Taylor and his girlfriend were sleeping alongside their infant daughter. Taylor grabbed a machete he kept near the bed and charged. Rivera, police believe, shot Taylor in the groin before escaping. The football player was rushed to Jackson Memorial Hospital, where he died the following day.

A tip led Miami-Dade homicide detectives to Fort Myers. Rivera and three others all confessed to their roles in the shootings and were charged with murder, according to Miami-Dade police. In Florida, someone who commits certain felonies — in this case, armed burglary — that result in a death can be charged with murder.

Investigators traced Mitchell and Wardlow’s cellphone signals traveling from Fort Myers to Miami the night of the doomed burglary, according to police reports. The two phones were also traced communicating with each other near Taylor’s Palmetto Bay house.

Rivera’s phone was tracked in use along the stretch of Interstate 75 known as Alligator Alley returning from Miami to Fort Myers that morning. The gun is believed to have been tossed in the swamp along the interstate.

Toll records also placed the group crossing Alligator Alley in a sports utility vehicle rented for them by a Fort Myers woman. Another young woman told police that the group all showed up at her house after the break-in, leaving behind “burglary tools,” according to an arrest warrant.

Police also found an imprint of a Nike Shox sneakers on the kicked-in bedroom door; Rivera later admitted to owning the same-style shoes, according to snippets of his heavily redacted sworn statement.

During his interview, he grew increasingly nervous but was given pizza and Coca-Cola by detectives. Detectives pressed Rivera to come clean. His eyes watered, according to one police report.

Miami-Dade Detective Larry Belyeu, according to the police report, discussed how “the death of Sean Taylor, a National Football League player, was horrific. Mr. Taylor was not a drug dealer and that he was a hero to the youth all over America,” according to the police report.

Rivera confessed after that, but the details of his statement to police have never been revealed in public. By state law, most evidence in criminal cases is public record, but not anything deemed the “substance” of a confession.

Judge Murphy, early in the case, instituted the gag order and reviewed evidence before it was released to the media. He has consistently said he wanted to protect the rights of the accused and avoid having to move the trial to another county because of a jury pool tainted by publicity.

Over objections from media outlets, Murphy also closed the courtroom during key pre-trial hearings dealing with what evidence will be presented to jurors.

Venjah Hunte, the man police say drove the band of burglars from Fort Myers to Miami, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in May 2010. He will serve 29 years in prison and has agreed to cooperate against the others, although it is unknown if prosecutors will call him to testify against Rivera.