Miami-Dade County

After conviction, accused Sean Taylor shooter could face life in prison

Jurors in the trial of Eric Rivera couldn’t say whether he fired the shot six years ago that killed football star Sean Taylor.

But on Monday, they still found Rivera, 23, guilty of murder.

The conviction, delivered to a hushed Miami-Dade County courtroom, was for second-degree murder without possession of a firearm. The 12-member jury — six men and six women — seemed to have had trouble believing Rivera’s confession to police that he pulled the trigger.

Prosecutors had charged Rivera with first-degree murder in the death of Taylor, a safety for the Washington Redskins who died in November 2007 after a group of men from Fort Myers broke into his suburban Palmetto Bay home.

The jury also found Rivera guilty of armed burglary. He could face up to life in prison.

Rivera stood quietly, holding his hands in front of him, as the verdict was announced. Jackie Garcia Haley, Taylor’s girlfriend, bent over in the court gallery and buried her face in her hands.

Jurors struggled with the case for much longer than prosecutors from the Miami-Dade state attorney’s office and Rivera’s defense attorneys had expected, deliberating for some 16 hours over four days before reaching an apparent compromise.

They did not speak to reporters when they left the criminal courthouse. Neither did Taylor’s or Rivera’s attorneys or their families, who sat on opposite sides of the courtroom throughout the 11-day trial.

Miami-Dade Circuit Court Judge Dennis Murphy said Rivera would probably be sentenced before Christmas. He scheduled an initial hearing for Dec. 10.

Three of the other four accused men have pleaded not guilty and are awaiting trial. The fourth pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and is serving 29 years in prison.

The murder, just days after Thanksgiving, rocked South Florida and fans of the Redskins, the University of Miami and Gulliver Preparatory School, where Taylor had been a football standout in college and high school. The entire Redskins team attended Taylor’s funeral and took the field one player short in their next game in his honor.

Rivera, then 17, and the four others made the trip across Alligator Alley on Interstate 75 intent on raiding the thousands of dollars in cash they thought Taylor kept inside his house on Old Cutler Road. One of the men had attended a birthday party there for Taylor’s sister and had seen Taylor gift her $10,000 tucked in a new purse.

To the men’s surprise, Taylor, 24, was not in Tampa with the Redskins that night — but at home, asleep with his girlfriend and their 18-month-old daughter.

In prosecutors’ version of events, Rivera kicked open the master bedroom door and, upon seeing Taylor, who was holding a small machete, shot him in the groin. The bullet hit Taylor’s femoral artery, which supplies much of the blood to the lower half of the body. He died the next day.

Jurors viewed a videotaped confession Rivera gave police a few days after the murder. He told a judge under oath two years ago that the confession was true.

Prosecutors Reid Rubin, Penny Brill and Ray Araujo also pointed to a letter Rivera penned in jail to a cousin, asking him to pressure a key prosecution witness to change her testimony; to cell phone records between Rivera and the other men accused in the case, and to footprint marks found in Taylor’s house that prosecutors say match Rivera’s shoes.

But when Rivera testified in his defense last week, he said the confession was coerced by police who claimed Rivera’s family was being threatened because of his role in Taylor’s death. He said he had previously lied in court so he wouldn’t have to testify against one of his buddies also charged in the crime.

Rivera said he only tagged along for the ride and never even left the burglars’ car.

As for the jailhouse letter, it was an attempt to bolster his defense at the time, Rivera said. He chalked up the calls to one of his friends in the group who often borrowed his phone and said he was not wearing the Nike Shox sneakers identified in the footprints.

Defense attorneys Chris Brown and Janese Caruthers also noted there was no DNA or fingerprints to tie Rivera to the scene. Police said the murder weapon, which was never found, was wrapped in a sock and hurled into the Everglades.

Yet the evidence was enough for jurors to convict Rivera as a key player in the crime.

Rivera entered the courtroom Monday morning escorted by corrections officers. In the hallway, his mother hollered, “Eric!” Rivera turned around, smiled and mouthed, “Hi.”

He crossed the same hallway about five hours later, in handcuffs and an orange prison jumpsuit.

This time, no one said a word.