Key hearing in Homestead machete murder case to be held in secret, judge rules

Desiray Strickland, 20, who is accused of participating in the murder of a Homestead student in June 2015.
Desiray Strickland, 20, who is accused of participating in the murder of a Homestead student in June 2015. Miami Herald

Former students accused of the savage machete murder of a teen in Homestead want to be released from jail before trial — and a judge is allowing the evidence against them to remain secret.

In a rarely seen move, a Miami-Dade judge on Tuesday agreed to close the courtroom for a key hearing to determine whether bail is appropriate for two of five young people accused of murdering 17-year-old Jose Amaya Guardado. All of them, including the victim, attended Homestead Job Corps, a live-in school and vocational training program run by the U.S. Department of Labor.

Circuit Judge Dava Tunis said in her order that closing the courtroom was necessary to protect the right to a “fair and impartial jury” in a case that has drawn “extensive and pervasive local, national and international print, broadcast and media coverage.”

The decision is highly unusual. Florida generally boasts one of the most transparent state court systems in the country and pre-trial hearings are rarely closed to the public, even in the most notorious of criminal cases.

A trial itself is likely years away. But the judge ruled that even standard jury questioning at trial, designed to weed out potential jurors tainted by publicity in a county as large as Miami-Dade, “has become increasingly impossible with the virtually instantaneous dissemination of information available via the Internet.”

The Miami Herald plans to appeal the ruling.

“The courtroom belongs to the public, and it’s difficult to accept that the public is being kicked out of a hearing during which the judge will consider whether two people indicted for first-degree murder should be released into public pending trial,” said Scott Ponce, a lawyer for the Miami Herald.

Miami Herald Executive Editor Aminda Marqués Gonzalez said, “This was a brutal crime and we believe it is in the public interest to keep the hearing open.”

The Arthur hearing for the first two students up for bail, Joseph Cabrera, 24, and Desiray Strickland, 20, is scheduled for Thursday. Others also charged with first-degree murder are Kaheem Arbelo, Christian Colon and Jonathan Lucas. All of them, for now, potentially face the death penalty.

Strickland’s attorney, Scott Sakin, hailed the decision, saying closing the courtroom will stop the public reporting of “erroneous information” that has been “devastating” to his client.

“This will stop that from continuing and from the public hearing salacious details that are not true,” Sakin said.

At the “Arthur” hearing, prosecutors will detail the evidence against the defendants so a judge can rule whether they should remain behind bars before trial.

The same judge has also limited the release of certain evidence in the case, including the confessions of the defendants, and their supposed confessions to other witnesses. Strickland did not confess to police.

Detectives say Arbelo, Strickland and the others conspired for two weeks to kill Guardado, a fellow student at the federally run residential school for at-risk youth.

Guardado vanished from the Homestead campus in June 2015. His brother found him buried in a shallow grave in the woods near the campus in South Miami-Dade. He had been hacked so viciously that “his face caved in,” according to an arrest report released by the police department.

According to the police report, Strickland and Arbelo had sex in the woods after the group cleaned up the crime scene and buried the dead teen.