More than a decade after former University of Miami football star Sean Taylor was murdered during a botched burglary, his teenage killer was back in court Wednesday to insist he deserved a second chance at freedom
Eric Rivera, now a husky 28-year-old in a red jail jumpsuit, insisted he'd matured and wanted to work with troubled youths. "I know I can be a productive member of society," he said.
His mother argued her son never intended to kill Taylor, a star player for the Washington Redskins believed shot by Rivera during the fateful break-in in November 2007. "I don't think he should be behind bars for the rest of his life for something that was a mistake — and an accident," his mother testified during a hearing on Wednesday.
The judge wasn't buying it.
Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Dennis Murphy refused to knock any time off the sentence for Eric Rivera, who was 17 when he killed Taylor, earning him a prison sentence of over 57 years.
Rivera's defense lawyer had asked Murphy to shorten that lengthy term, saying he deserved leniency under changes to Florida's juvenile-justice laws ordered by federal courts — and because several other defendants in the case got lesser sentences.
Still, the judge amended the sentence to comply with new Florida law. Rivera will get another chance to ask a judge for possible release in four years.
Prosecutors say Rivera fatally shot Taylor inside the player's Palmetto Bay home in November 2007, a killing that stunned South Florida and the National Football League, where Taylor was emerging as one of the best defensive backs in pro football. Detectives unraveled a botched burglary plot — five young men from Fort Myers drove across the state in search of a stash of cash they mistakenly believed was inside Taylor's house.
The group believed Taylor was out of town for a football game. But Taylor was inside the master bedroom, sleeping alongside his girlfriend and their baby daughter.
After kicking in the bedroom door, prosecutors have said, Rivera shot Taylor as the safety rushed him with a machete he kept in his bedroom for protection. One bullet severed the femoral artery in Taylor's leg and he bled to death.
Cellphone records eventually detailed the burglars' trip from Southwest Florida, and Rivera confessed in detail.
But at his highly anticipated trial in 2013, jurors did not convict him of first-degree murder with a firearm. Instead, he was convicted of second-degree murder without a firearm and armed burglary.
Judge Murphy sentenced him to over 57 years in prison.
The plot’s mastermind was Jason Mitchell, who had earlier attended a birthday party for Taylor’s sister at the home. He too went to trial, lost and is serving a life prison term.
The driver, Venjah Hunte, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 29 years in prison. Timmy Lee Brown, who was 16 at the time of the crime, pleaded guilty and is doing 18 years behind bars. Charles Wardlow accepted a 30-year prison term.
Wednesday's hearing was attended by Taylor's former girlfriend, Jackie Garcia Haley, and his father, Florida City Police Chief Pedro Taylor.
Rivera was sentenced two years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it was unlawful for states to automatically sentence juveniles convicted of murder to automatic prison sentences of life without the possibility of parole.
Months after Rivera's sentence in 2014, a new Florida law mandated that juveniles convicted of murder are eligible for a judge to review their sentences, a quasi-parole system. The Florida Supreme Court later ruled that most juvenile killers, no matter when they were convicted, should get new sentences under that law.
His defense lawyer, Janese Caruthers, argued for a sentence of between 18 and 22 years, saying that Rivera had been peer pressured into tagging along with the group — even though Rivera himself admitted he supplied the crowbar used to help break into Taylor's house.
"No one intended to kill Mr. Taylor. This was supposed to be a burglary and it turned into this unfortunate homicide," she said.
Prosecutor Reid Rubin, during Wednesday's hearing, said Rivera has been busted behind bars for illegally having a cell phone, getting in fights and was even suspecting of funding the illegal cigarette and synthetic drug trade among a gang in prison.
"He hasn't demonstrated any redeeming qualities that justified a reduction in sentence," Rubin said. "His behavior hasn't improved. He continued to get in trouble in prison."
Judge Murphy agreed.