No death penalty for 4 ex-students charged in gruesome machete murder

Christian Colon, Joseph Cabrera and Kaheem Arbelo in court on Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2017, for a hearing in the Homestead machete murder case.
Christian Colon, Joseph Cabrera and Kaheem Arbelo in court on Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2017, for a hearing in the Homestead machete murder case.

Prosecutors won’t seek the death penalty for four of the five former students accused in the gruesome machete murder of a teenager in the woods of Homestead.

The state announced Tuesday that it would seek to execute only the alleged ringleader, Kaheem Arbelo, who is believed to have delivered the fatal machete blows to 17-year-old Jose Amaya Guardado. His corpse was found buried in a shallow grave near the Homestead Jobs Corp facility in June 2015.

Arbelo, 22, and four others are accused of hatching and carrying out the plot to murder Guardado outside the live-in school for at-risk students.

The others now face life in prison if convicted of first-degree murder. They are Joseph Cabrera, 24, Desiray Strickland, 20, Jonathan Lucas, 19, and Christian Colon, 20.

In January, Cabrera rejected a plea deal that could have meant as little as 10 years in prison if he agreed to testify against the others.

The shocking murder raised concerns about oversight and security at Job Corps, which operates 125 campuses across the country and falls under the U.S. Department of Labor. The program helps at-risk people between the ages of 16 and 24 earn their high-school degrees and learn vocational skills.

Law-enforcement sources have told the Miami Herald that the killing may have stemmed from a debt owed to Arbelo, and that the accused students were known as bullies at the campus.

According to an arrest report, the group conspired for two weeks to kill Guardado, who vanished from the campus in June 2015. His brother later found him buried in the grave in the woods near the campus, his body hacked so viciously that “his face caved in,” according to the report.

Arbelo and Strickland had sex in the woods after the group cleaned up the crime scene and buried the dead teen, according to the police report. A Miami-Dade grand jury later indicted the group on charges of first-degree murder.

Strickland was also accused of head-butting a homicide detective and vandalizing a table during her interview at Miami-Dade police headquarters.

Cabrera and Strickland are also awaiting a hearing so that a judge can rule whether there is enough evidence to keep them behind bars. It’s been on hold since a judge last month ordered the courtroom closed to the public and the media, saying that the “pervasive publicity” surrounding the case jeopardizes the right to a fair and impartial jury at a trial down the road.

Prosecutors are expected to detail the confessions of four defendants; those statements have been sealed by the court under Florida law. The Miami Herald and WPLG-ABC10 are appealing to the Third District Court of Appeal.

Tuesday’s decision comes amid a changing landscape for death-penalty litigation in Florida. For decades, Florida juries needed a minimum of seven votes to issue a recommendation for the death penalty, with a judge ultimately meting out the sentence.

A series of rulings from the U.S. Supreme Court and the state’s high court has left capital litigation largely in limbo, with lawmakers in the coming weeks looking to craft a law that requires juries to issue unanimous verdicts to condemn someone to death.

This week, the Florida Supreme Court ruled death-penalty cases could still move forward, if a judge properly instructs a jury to reach a unanimous verdict.

The higher bar for imposing the death penalty has already had an effect in high-profile cases in Miami-Dade.

Last week, State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle announced that her office would not seek execution in the notorious “Baby Lollipops” child murder case, saying prosecutors did not believe a jury would unanimously impose the death penalty.

In Strickland’s case, her defense lawyers pointed to her youth at the time of the crime, a history of mental-health problems and her “minimal involvement” in the crime as alleged by prosecutors.

“This was nowhere near an appropriate death penalty case. You will never get 12 people to agree to sentence Ms. Strickland to death, taking into account her age, her background, her immaturity,” said Scott Sakin, her lead attorney.

The decision to waive the penalty was made relatively quickly. In Miami-Dade, those decisions can sometimes take many years, while the state foots the bill for court-appointed lawyers and experts in the case.

Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Dava Tunis on Tuesday thanked prosecutors for making the decision sooner than later; she mentioned another of her ongoing cases — the alleged Terrorist Boys gang racketeering case — that has cost taxpayers at least $4.2 million in legal and other bills.

Because each of the defendants in the machete case were facing the death penalty, each had been granted a second lawyer to help them prepare for a possible sentencing. With execution for four of them no longer in play, the judge took four of the lawyers off the case.

“Those lawyers are discharged,” Tunis said. “That means no more billing.”