The Sunday night Paul Sarnecki was murdered, he had just locked up his new restaurant near Homestead, packed two of his kids in the car and slipped behind the wheel to drive home.
Another car suddenly pulled into the parking lot with four men and 16-year-old Nakia Huggins inside. It was supposed to be a simple robbery. But Huggins and another man shot the defenseless father to death where he sat, leaving the children — a boy, 5, and girl, 10 — screaming as their car slowly crept onto the highway.
Huggins was arrested in five days, convicted a year after the 1991 crime and condemned to life in prison.
Now, 26 years later, Huggins is trying to make the case in a Miami courtroom that he deserves his life term reduced, with his attorneys and assorted experts arguing he’s a gentler, wiser man than the heedless teen who pulled the trigger so long ago.
His re-sentencing was mandated by a Florida Supreme Court decision last year, which followed federal rulings that found the state’s practice of handing out life sentences with no chance of parole was unconstitutional and unfair to juvenile criminals — even young murderers — because it ignored mitigating factors like poverty and abusive childhoods.
The Huggins case, one of some 300 involving juvenile killers in Florida that could be re-examined, has dragged on for months. In the process, it has exposed a painful side-effect largely left unaddressed in the judicial rulings. The hearings offer hope and a second chance at life outside prison for young offenders who might have been treated unjustly by the criminal justice system. But they are absolute hell on the families of murder victims, reviving traumatizing memories and demanding emotionally grueling days, weeks or even months of their lives.
Lori Sarnecki, Paul Sarnecki’s widow, flew down from West Virginia when the hearings began in early August. One of the first people on the stand, she told Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Victoria del Pino not to extend leniency to a killer she blames for shattering her world and family.
“Even though [Huggins is] behind bars, he still has a life,” she said. “Paul’s life is gone.”
At the end of the fourth day of hearings, Lori Sarnecki, 56, emerged from the courtroom wrung-out from the process: “Please, just let’s have peace. Let’s just put a stop to this. It’s gotta stop … consider the victims,” she said. “But please to the court system, I beg you, I beg, please, please consider the victims. I think I can understand why criminals have rights but what about we, as victims, what about our rights?”
By the fifth day of testimony spread out over two weeks, she and other family members would learn final arguments in the case would not be scheduled until the end of September. Since then, they’ve been pushed back yet because of Hurricane Irma to Oct. 19.
And to add to their frustration, no matter what decision del Pino makes, practically speaking, Huggins is staying behind bars anyway — at least until the middle of the next decade. He still has to serve out a 30-year sentence for setting a mattress on fire while in prison.
Penny Brill, a retired Miami-Dade prosecutor who was the head of the office’s legal bureau, empathized with the survivors of murder victims pulled back into the courtroom .
“These families thought they had some closure and 25 years later, the wound is re-opened,” Brill said. “The saving grace is the defendant doesn’t get a whole new trial. But on the other hand, the defendant could potentially walk out of jail tomorrow — which is a very hard thing for people to understand.”
A series of rulings
Huggins’ case was re-opened as a result of a Florida Supreme Court decision that there must be “individualized consideration” of the offender’s juvenile’s status at the time of the murder. The case — Atwell v. Florida — built on two earlier U.S. Supreme Court cases that have redefined the way young offenders are sentenced.
In 2010, the federal high court found that life-without-parole sentences for non-homicides amounted to cruel and unusual punishment, violating the Eighth Amendment. One key for the court were studies showing that the brains of juveniles are less developed than adults, clouding judgment and consideration of long-term consequences. In addition, the rulings found that older state sentencing rules for juveniles failed to adequately account for the powerful influence of poverty or a fractured family upbringing. Two years later, in an Alabama case, the Supreme Court expanded its decision to cover young murderers.
Even before he was allowed a new hearing , Huggins had appealed his sentence several times, claiming it was illegal. He had been awaiting this re-sentencing hearing since Sept. 2015, when he was moved from state prison to county jail.
Huggins was convicted of first-degree murder, armed robbery and grand theft exactly one year after the August 1991 murder of Sarnecki, a 32-year-old restauranteur and father of three who lived in Tavernier in the Florida Keys. Two men in the car testified that Huggins pumped five bullets into Sarnecki as he started his car and that another man, Daniel Evans, fired once. Huggins, who lived in South Miami-Dade, also confessed his role to police.
Evans was 22 at the time of the murder and is serving a life sentence without the same chance for release as Huggins. The same goes for Mitchell Watson, who did not fire a weapon and was 26 at the time of the crime.
After a quarter century behind bars, Huggins told the judge during an August hearing that he was a changed man.
“I learned my lesson, ma’am,” he said, choking back tears. He paused and took a breath before repeatedly apologizing to Sarnecki’s relatives and wiping his eyes with a tissue.
“What I did was horribly wrong and sometimes it’s hard to accept what I even did to this family,” he said. “I took a dad from three kids. That’s something I could never replace,” he said. “If I could go back and undo this, I would’ve done that years ago … I don’t blame them [for hating me] because I hate myself most of the time for this.”
As a teen, Huggins said, he acted on impulse, never thinking of how many people would be hurt for so long. Listening to Sarnecki’s wife talk about the loss of her husband, Huggins said, “It’s like she was talking to me with her soul.” He teared up again, unable to continue.
His grandmother, Nora Huggins Pearson, testified she and her husband of 10 years would welcome him into their home. She said she was relieved at his apology, which Sarnecki’s family had never heard before either.
“It’s important that I heard it. It’s important to me. I hadn’t heard that,” Pearson said
Huggins’ family and defense attorney, Michelle Estlund, pleaded for leniency as well. She ticked off the progress Huggins had shown behind bars — earning a high school equivalency degree, becoming a paralegal, attending life skills courses and counseling. He had recorded seven consecutive years of good behavior and assisted corrections officers by speaking to teenagers during jail tours. Several corrections officers testified that they observed Huggins to be respectful, responsible, and polite.
But complicating his case: Huggins’ first two decades in prison were marred by violence. He was sentenced to 30 years for lighting his mattress on fire in 2001. Four years later, an officer’s attempt to seize Huggins’ homemade knife spiraled into a 200-person prison riot in 2005. That tacked on another five-year sentence. He added a second arson incident to that list a few years later, which involved a trashcan fire.
He also sent a life-threatening letter to former President George W. Bush, which he testified was a cry for help about the fear that officers were going to kill him. His explanation: “I was still young, impulsive, wild.”
One key question for the court is whether Huggins can be truly rehabilitated and live a straight life outside of prison. Psychology experts brought in to testify differed on how far he had come and how he might fare if set free. One said suggested the teenage Huggins might have been pressured by the adults in the car to pull the trigger. Another talked about how his difficult childhood — abandonment by his mother and an abusive stepfather — shaped his behavior. Another expert said it was extremely improbable that Huggins could be rehabilitated.
Time has not healed wounds
For Sarnecki’s family, however, more than two decades of time still has not healed their wounds or changed their view of Huggins.
The two children in the car when their father was murdered — 10-year-old Crici and 5-year-old Paul Jr. — gave their testimony in letters, the pain too raw for them to attend in person.
“[His children are] not here because you hurt them so bad that they can’t stand to look at you,” Assistant State Attorney Tammy Forrest told Huggins.
The letter from Paul Jr., now 31, spelled out that hurt in discomforting detail, blaming a host of family troubles on the traumatic loss, particularly his own soured relationship with his mother.
“We all watched our own mother turn into a shell of who she used to be. I have zero relationship with my mother now, and it tears me apart,” he wrote. “The lives that they changed will never be the same. They need to know they stole more than one life that day.”
The night of the murder, he and his sister had tagged along to spend extra time with their father, who had been working 12-hour days to get his new restaurant, called Italian Reef, up and running well. A younger child, 21-months-old at the time, remained at home. The killing was quick and cold-blooded. As her father died in the driver seat, Crici was forced to turn off the ignition after their car drifted onto the median of U.S. 1. She ran across the highway with her little brother in tow to call 911 at a local store.
“Crici was 10-years-old, and she had to be the mother of that family,” said Leslie Feliciano, 57, Paul Sarnecki’s younger sister.
“No words can say how opening this up and having to be put through this trial again — it’s just wrong in this situation,” she said.
Feliciano was a year younger than her brother, who taught her to drive, offered her her first job, and helped plan her wedding.
“He was a really good brother,” she said. “I’m scared that the system is going to let it all fall through.”
Mary Rollins, 62, Paul Sarnecki’s older sister, has spent more than 30 years as a mental health counselor, a majority of her career working with kids. She believes many juveniles offenders can turn their lives around — but she did not see that possibility with Huggins.
“His thoughts, his perceptions, his beliefs are very deeply ingrained and very resistant to change,” she said.
As devastating as the loss was to her family, Lori Sarnecki says she often turns to a surprising outpouring of public support after her husband’s death as source of strength and comfort. He wasn’t famous and the murder wasn’t widely publicized. But she got more than 2,000 letters of condolence and encouragement from around the world after the murder — most from strangers. She has long since moved to West Virginia but sometimes browses the letters, which are stored in a chest decorated with angels and clouds.
“I’ve always taught my children that night is not what the world is about,” she said. “These letters is what the world is about.”
Miami Herald Staff Writer David Ovalle contributed to this story. Contact Sydney Pereira at firstname.lastname@example.org