There is no dispute that Eric Rivera, while a police video camera was rolling, confessed to fatally shooting NFL star Sean Taylor during a deadly burglary in Palmetto Bay.
The question for jurors now: Was the confession real?
His defense lawyer told jurors Wednesday that Miami-Dade police detectives, desperate to solve the crime, forced Rivera to cop to the murder, after detaining the young men involved in the “harebrained scheme.”
To describe police efforts, lawyer Chris Brown quoted Shakespeare, though the line actually came from the movie Casablanca: “Round up the usual suspects.”
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But Rivera’s confession was detailed and true, prosecutors said during Wednesday’s closing arguments. The 23-year-old defendant even admitted it during a previous court hearing, and coupled with cell phone records and a damming jailhouse letter penned by Rivera himself, there is no doubt he killed Taylor, they said.
“If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it’s a duck,” Rubin shot back.
The jury will have to decide for themselves. The 12 jurors late Wednesday deliberated a little more than an hour before asking to return Thursday to decide on a verdict.
Rivera is charged with first-degree murder and armed burglary. He faces up to life in prison if convicted. Three other co-defendants, whom prosecutors say were Rivera’s cohorts, are awaiting trial. A fifth has pleaded guilty.
The closing arguments capped six days of testimony in this highly anticipated trial.
Taylor’s slaying inside his own home stunned South Florida and the nation. The hometown sports hero played at Gulliver Prep, starred at the University of Miami and was a first-round draft pick of the Washington Redskins.
A key defensive starter, Taylor had returned from Virginia to his South Florida home in November 2007 to visit family and rehab an injured knee.
Little did he know that across the state, a group of young men were planning to raid his house, thinking the home was empty. The scheme, Rubin told jurors Wednesday, was planted a month earlier at a birthday party hosted by Taylor’s sister, Sasha Johnson.
At trial, in emotional testimony, Johnson testified that her ever-generous brother gave her a purse stuffed with $10,000 cash. Jason Mitchell, who is awaiting trial for his role in the burglary, attended the party and saw her open the gift.
Mitchell and the other Fort Myers men came to believe that Taylor kept a stash of cash between $100,000 to $200,000, police say. “They were greedy,” Rubin said.
The group drove in a black sports utility vehicle, rented for them by a local Fort Myers woman. One witness told jurors that she saw Rivera, along with pal Charles Wardlow, drive the SUV away from the rental car agency.
At trial, prosecutors presented cell phone and toll records that traced the group’s trip to South Florida and back.
In a videotaped confession played for jurors, Rivera told Miami-Dade detectives that the group drove across Alligator Alley, parked at Taylor’s home and used a crowbar to pry open a back door. Once inside, they rummaged around but were spooked off, briefly.
But the group re-entered the home. Rivera told police that he kicked down the door to the master bedroom, where they believed Taylor kept the cash.
To his surprise, Taylor rushed at him and he fired his pistol.
“He shot Sean Taylor and Sean Taylor fell to the floor, mortally wounded and immediately began bleeding to death,” Rubin told jurors.
Jackie Garcia Haley, Taylor’s girlfriend who was in the bedroom with their infant daughter that night, began sobbing from the court gallery as Rubin recounted Taylor’s agonizing final moments.
For Rivera’s lawyers, the thrust of their case came in attacking the validity of Rivera’s confession to Miami-Dade detectives. The defendant took the stand Tuesday, saying that while he tagged along, he did not participate in the burglary. Instead, he claimed co-defendant Venjah Hunte was the triggerman.
He also told jurors that he falsely confessed only after overzealous detectives suggested they would protect his family from threats if he admitted to the crime.
Brown told jurors that prosecutors had no evidence beyond the supposed confession.
“We do not have fingerprints. We do not have an eye witness to the offense. We don’t have DNA,” he said.