Miami judge weighing thorny issues in sentence of killer, 16

Jaquelyn Parrish speaks of her younger stepbrother, Julian Soler, at the sentencing hearing of Eric Ellington Friday, Sept. 19, 2014. Ellington was convicted of brutal double slaying of Soler and his girlfriend Kennia Duran at Miami Gardens gas station in July 2011.
Jaquelyn Parrish speaks of her younger stepbrother, Julian Soler, at the sentencing hearing of Eric Ellington Friday, Sept. 19, 2014. Ellington was convicted of brutal double slaying of Soler and his girlfriend Kennia Duran at Miami Gardens gas station in July 2011. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

After listening to three shattered families — and with Florida law still unsettled on how to sentence young people convicted of murder — a Miami-Dade judge faces a difficult legal decision in the coming days.

What is the proper punishment for Eric Ellington? Ellington was just 16 years old when he ruthlessly gunned down Julian Soler during a carjacking in Miami Gardens “because he didn’t look scared enough.”

Miami-Dade prosecutors and relatives of Soler and Kennia Duran, also killed in the carjacking, want life in prison with zero chance at release — or at worst, with the possibility of parole only after at least 25 years.

“I will never forgive Eric Ellington for causing my daughter harm,” Jacqueline Serra, Duran’s mother, told the judge during a sentencing hearing on Friday. “In his path, he left sadness, grief and total despair.”

Prosecutor Michael Von Zamft said Ellington showed no remorse, refusing to admit even to a defense psychologist that he committed the murders: “Two innocent victims gunned down for no reason.”

On the flip side, Ellington’s defense attorney stressed that the teen grew up without a father, troubled by witnessing violence in his neighborhood and prone to the influence of pals the July 2011 night he pulled the trigger at a Mobil gas station.

“Someone else put Eric in the position for this to happen,” said assistant public defender Herb Smith. “Eric did not have maturity and judgment to not do it.”

Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Miguel de la O will issue his ruling on Oct.1.

Jurors in March convicted Ellington of two counts of first-degree murder and a slew of other crimes. Co-defendants Wayne Williams and Dylan McFarlane are awaiting trial.

According to police, the trio tried carjacking Soler and Duran of their 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 also identified him on gas station surveillance video that depicted his shooting of Soler in agonizing detail. Another gunman shot and killed Duran as she stood outside of the passenger side of the car.

Exactly how to punish juveniles convicted of murders remains a thorny question in Florida.

The U.S. Supreme Court in 2012 banned mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole on juveniles in murder cases.” The reasoning: Science has shown that youths’ brains are not fully developed and that they are susceptible to impulses and the influences of others.

A judge can still mete out life in prison, but only before considering the youth of a defendant. But across Florida, appeals courts have split on whether to give young defendants tough sentences that are less than life — or revert back to before the sentencing laws were changed in 1994, when parole would be possible after 25 years.

The state long ago effectively abolished the parole system, but a commission still exists to examine longtime inmates eligible for release because their cases date back to the early 1980s or before.

Since the high court’s decision, sentences have varied for juveniles convicted of murder in Miami-Dade.

Earlier this year, a Miami-Dade judge sentenced Eric Rivera, who was 17 when he killed NFL star Sean Taylor during a burglary in Palmetto Bay, to just under 58 years in prison.

One year ago, a Miami-Dade judge gave life in prison without the possibility of parole to Jimmie Bowen, the Miami gang member who coldly executed a 10-month-old baby during an ambush on a drug rival in Brownsville. The teenager who drove him to the crime got life in prison, too — but with the chance for parole after 25 years.

In the first Miami-Dade case following the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision, a teen named Benito Santiago — who gunned down a Liberty City couple — was sentenced to 60 years in prison in 2012.

As for Ellington, the judge Friday heard from Dr. Andrew Klein, who said Ellington’s home life — and his lashing out in fights against his mother’s boyfriend — made him the “definition of emotional immaturity.”

Erica Love, the teen’s mother, recalled Friday how her son got into a fight with her shortly before the murders, insisting that “all you care about is your job, you ain’t got time for us.”

“Mommy got to take care of you,” Love, her voice cracking, recalled telling her son.

And in gut-wrenching testimony, relatives of Duran and Soler recalled the lives of the slain couple.

Duran, 24 when she died, was a lover of ballet, drawing, and arts and crafts. She was also a young mother whose son, Anthony, was just 6 when she was killed.

“No more birthdays. No more Thanksgiving. No more Christmases. No more Easters. No more Mother’s Day,” Serra, her mother, told the judge. “I miss her every day.”

Soler, 23, was a “gentle giant,” a hulking young man who loved sports, Ford Mustangs and never acted confrontational. His brother, Armando Soler Jr., sobbed when prosecutors played the surveillance video of the shooting, complete with the sound of the flurry of gunshots.

“He was an amazing human being,” Armando Soler Jr. said. “From the moment he was born, to the last video when he had his hands up.”