The decision to sentence a teenager to a lengthy prison term clearly weighed on Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Miguel de la O.
“I know you are in pain,” the judge told Eric Ellington’s mother, his voice cracking. “Sometimes, despite our best efforts, our children go astray.”
But the nature of the crime was just too brutal to be lenient, even if Ellington was just 16 when he shot and killed Julian Soler after the victim “wasn’t scared at all” during a Miami Gardens carjacking in July 2011.
Soler, 23, had his hands up when Ellington unleashed a flurry of gunshots at Soler — a murder captured on video surveillance and shown at trial.
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“You shot a man in cold blood and you shot him eight times and you kept shooting him,” de la O told Ellington on Monday. “You wanted him to die.”
And with that, he sentenced Ellington, now 19, to life in prison in a state where there is no current parole system. Said the judge: “You have forfeited the right to ever be free.”
Monday’s sentencing was an emotional finale in the case against Ellington, whose murder of Soler shocked South Florida. During the carjacking, one of Ellington’s cohorts also shot and killed Soler’s friend, Kennia Duran, 24.
In March, jurors convicted Ellington of two counts of first-degree murder and a slew of other counts. Co-defendants Wayne Williams and Dylan McFarlane are awaiting trial.
“I thought he was going to get the minimum. I didn’t think they were going to give him life,” said Janine Diaz, Soler’s mother. “I’m very satisfied. I think it’s fair.”
Miami Gardens police say that Ellington, Williams and McFarlane tried to carjack Soler and Duran’s Ford Mustang at a gas station.
Finger and palm prints on the Mustang door matched Ellington, who gave a detailed audio- and video-recorded confession played to jurors during the trial. His mother, who urged him to come clean to police detectives, also identified him on gas station surveillance video that depicted his shooting of Soler in excruciating detail.
Ellington had rejected a 40-year plea offer before going to trial.
Because Ellington was a minor when he shot and killed Soler, Judge de la O had thorny issues to wrestle with. Adults in Florida convicted of first-degree murder face mandatory life in prison without the possibility of parole.
However, the U.S. Supreme Court in 2012 banned such automatic sentences for juveniles in murder cases. Judges can still mete out life in prison, but must consider evidence of a defendant’s youth.
Legislators earlier this year tweaked the law to allow for judicial “review” after 25 years for juveniles convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison, a quasi-parole system. But the change in the law does not apply to cases from before July 1, and that includes Ellington’s case.
Last month, de la O heard evidence that Ellington’s youth was marked by a broken home: his father was in prison and he frequently clashed with his mother’s boyfriend. But the court also heard that his mother worked hard to provide for Ellington, who was also cared for by extended family.
“You didn’t shoot him because your mother worked too much,” de la O said. “You didn’t shoot him because your father wasn’t around.”
The judge himself, in a 15-page order, could not speculate as to Ellington’s motives.
“It is natural to seek explanations in the wake of unspeakable tragedy,” the judge wrote. “But there is no satisfactory explanation as to why Ellington decided to murder Mr. Soler. There will never be; none would any ever suffice.”