For strangling his neighbor in a drug-fueled North Miami-Dade burglary, Nelson Santoni wanted to plead guilty in March – before prosecutors could seek the death penalty.
But an appeals court on Wednesday ruled that a Miami-Dade judge had every right to reject Santoni’s bid to plead guilty just weeks after the slaying.
The main reason: relatives of Brenda Lee Henderson, the 52-year-old woman slain in the bloody February attack, had been unable to attend any of early court hearings.
Florida rules do “not permit a defendant to unilaterally dictate when the trial court can accept a plea,” the Third District Court of Appeal said in a unanimous decision.
Prosecutors say Santoni used a cord to strangle Henderson, the owner of a beauty salon, inside an apartment building on the 1500 block of Northeast 118th Street.
While Miami-Dade detectives and technicians pored over the scene on Feb. 26, Santoni showed up to his home. Police let him into his unit and immediately noticed Henderson’s belongings inside.
According to police, he confessed to strangling Henderson when she walked in as he was looting her home, according to authorities. He also led detectives to where he had abandoned Henderson’s car, which he had stolen.
By law, prosecutors must get a grand-jury indictment for a charge of first-degree murder, which carries a max penalty of death. Santoni was initially charged with second-degree murder while the state prepared to go to the grand jury.
But Santoni, saying he was remorseful, immediately offered to plead guilty to second-degree murder, which means he would have likely been sentenced to life in prison. Prosecutors objected because they had not had a chance to discuss the casewith Henderson’s relatives, whom lived out of state.
Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Fleur Lobree agreed, saying: “I’m required to balance not only the rights of your client, but also the rights of the victim.”
The Miami-Dade Public Defender’s Office, which represents Santoni, immediately appealed, asking the appeals court to order Lobree to accept the plea.
Prosecutors bristled, saying the quick plea was just a “tactical maneuver” to avoid the possibility of the death penalty. The Third DCA would not go that far, saying simply “that a trial court has the discretion to decide when to hold a plea hearing.”
A grand jury has since indicted Santoni for first-degree murder.
In Miami-Dade, it is extremely rare for someone charged with murder to plead guilty so quickly. It has happened only once in recent years.
In May 2011, Reynerio Alonso pleaded guilty at arraignment to fatally stabbing Elizabeth Palomino of West Kendall, during a botched burglary. Alonso pleaded guilty, avoiding the death penalty, and is now doing life in prison.