Miami-Dade County

Sean Taylor’s girlfriend offers tearful testimony in murder trial

The trial started Monday with Sean Taylor’s shining moments.

Prosecutors displayed a photo of Taylor on draft day. Another photo showed football helmets spanning his career: from the University of Miami to the Washington Redskins to the NFL Pro Bowl. Still another photo depicted Taylor, his longtime girlfriend, Jackie Garcia Haley, and their baby daughter on Easter Sunday.

Garcia Haley, dressed in all black, somberly identified each photo, fighting back tears as she took the stand during the first day of trial for Eric Rivera, the man accused of murdering Taylor during a botched burglary in November 2007.

But like Taylor’s life, her testimony ended in heart-breaking fashion as Garcia Haley recounted the horrifying night that intruders forced their way into their Palmetto Bay house.

She and Taylor, who had been dating since their days at Gulliver High, went to bed around 10 p.m., their 18-month-old daughter at their side. Past 1 a.m., Taylor roused her. He heard a noise. Where was the machete? By the bed, Garcia Haley whispered.

“He proceeded out toward the bedroom door,” Garcia Haley told jurors. “I attempted to call 911. I heard a really loud noise, similar to a gunshot. A scream, like an ‘Aaahh.’ I think it was Sean.’”

Garcia Haley did not see who shot Taylor. She hid under the covers and called 911. After a few moments, she emerged and inched toward Taylor, who gasped for air but was unable to speak.

“I saw him laying on the floor face down. I just saw all this blood,” Garcia Haley, 30, told jurors.

Frantically, she tried to soothe him, grabbing a towel to try and stop the bleeding. When Miami-Dade police officers arrived, Garcia Haley sprinted to let them in to the gated home.

“I ran outside and screamed for help. I told them someone was dying, to please hurry,” Garcia Haley said.

Paramedics whisked Taylor away to Jackson Memorial Hospital. The gunshot severed Taylor’s femoral artery, Miami-Dade prosecutor Ray Araujo told jurors. “The bleeding was massive and quick,” Araujo told jurors during opening statements Monday. He said Rivera fired the fatal shot.

Before following him to the hospital, Garcia Haley rushed to her mother’s house to drop off her 18-month-old namesake daughter — and change her blood-soaked clothes.

Taylor did not survive.

Garcia Haley was the first witness in the highly anticipated trial of Rivera, 23, who is charged with first-degree murder and armed burglary in a slaying that shocked the nation.

After numerous legal delays, Rivera is the first of five defendants to go trial.

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

There is ample evidence linking Rivera and the band of burglars to Taylor’s murder, Araujo told jurors Monday.

Cell phone and toll records placed him and four other young burglars traveling from Fort Myers to Taylor’s Palmetto Bay home and back again. Footprints of Rivera’s Nike Shox sneakers were found in the home, including the kicked-in master bedroom door -- jurors on Monday viewed casts and photo of the prints.

A young woman even placed Rivera, 23, together with the other burglars immediately after the shooting of the former UM star. Rivera himself even penned a letter to a cousin, asking him to get the girl to lie to authorities about what happened that night, he said.

But perhaps the most damning evidence, Araujo told jurors, are Rivera’s own words: he gave a detailed confession of the plan, the crime and the aftermath, including hurling the murder weapon into the Everglades.

“Nothing can hide the fact that this defendant confessed to the murder of Sean Taylor,” Araujo told jurors in a detailed and meticulous account.

The thrust of Rivera’s defense was not surprising. Defense lawyer Janese Caruthers argued that Miami-Dade detectives “ambushed” Rivera, who unwillingly tagged along on the ill-fated burglary but was not a willing participant.

“They were in such a rush and under such pressure to close the case that they forced my client to give a statement and they forced him to confess to a crime that he did not commit,” Caruthers told jurors.

Miami-Dade prosecutors said the group of young men, all from Fort Myers, drove to Palmetto Bay believing that Taylor was not home. The plan was hatched when one of Rivera’s cohorts attended a birthday party hosted by Taylor’s sister, who showed off $10,000 in cash her brother had given her as a gift.

“It all started with a plan. A plan to score some easy cash,” Araujo said.

In many ways, the Palmetto Bay home on Old Cutler Road was one of the central characters on Monday.

Garcia Haley told jurors that the home, purchased by Taylor, was used mostly by his relatives while they lived in Virginia. But that weekend, he was home nursing an injury and visiting family for Thanksgiving. And the hurricane shutters were drawn — which might have made the house appear empty.

She also told defense lawyers that Taylor often kept large amounts of cash inside the home, although she wasn’t sure how many people knew about the money.

Crime scene technicians on Monday also presented evidence collected at the home, including the bullet casings found by the bedroom and on the first floor, where Rivera is believed to have shot out the sliding glass door in an attempt to escape the home after shooting Taylor.