A witness box occupies the center of the courtroom. Five judges in long black robes listen to testimony. The defendant watches from the front row of the gallery with an armed guard at his side. There is no jury.
This is how justice operates in Cuba’s socialist system. Or at least that is what Florida prosecutors gleaned from a murder trial in Havana that was groundbreaking on several fronts: The star witness was a detective from the Palm Beach Sheriff’s Office; the defendant was a Cuban national accused of shooting a Jupiter Farms doctor in the head before he fled to the island, and a Florida prosecutor helped prepare the Cuban prosecution team for trial.
“It was fascinating. I was impressed how much it resembled our courtroom process,” said Assistant State Attorney Aleathea McRoberts, who was part of the team that made arrangements for the defendant, Marcos Yanes Gutierrez, to be tried in Cuba and watched the trial from the gallery. “There were opening statements, the presentation of evidence and closing arguments.”
The unprecedented proceedings unfolded in February in the Criminal Division of the People’s Provincial Court in Havana — 288 miles south of West Palm Beach. Even though the crime took place in Florida, it would be the Cuban judges who decided Yanes’ fate. After a day of testimony and an impassioned 45-minute closing argument by Yanes’ Cuban attorney, the judges retired and said they would have a verdict within six business days.
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The team from Palm Beach County returned to Florida and waited.
Then came the news: Yanes, who fled to the island after the July 2015 shooting, was convicted of first-degree murder in the death of Dr. Ronald O. Schwartz. He got 20 years, the maximum the judges could give him because he was only 19 when he committed the crime. Had he been older, the maximum sentence would be 30 years.
Because Cuba routinely doesn’t extradite its citizens to stand trial in the United States, it was up to the Palm Beach State Attorney’s Office to decide whether to take up the Cubans on an offer to try the case in Havana or let Yanes get away with murder.
“We realized the only way to get a measure of justice for the victim was to do it there. We knew if it didn’t work out with Cuban authorities, this defendant most likely would have gone free and that was unacceptable to us,” said David Aronberg, Palm Beach state attorney.
“Because of the frayed relations between our two countries, nothing like this has happened before. We could have said no and continued to push for extradition but that would have fallen on deaf ears,” he said. So the decision was made to go for the 20-year sentence or “no sentence at all.”
As part of the deal, Yanes also will never be allowed to return to the United States, he said.
The trial took place in February but neither Cuban nor U.S. officials had talked publicly about it until earlier this month when the Miami Herald first reported on the unusual law enforcement cooperation. Initially, the Palm Beach State Attorney’s Office said it couldn’t talk about the case at the request of the Department of Justice.
The trial was open to the public. Yanes’ family attended and also some diplomats from the U.S. Embassy in Havana.
Some things were quite different in the Cuban court system, said McRoberts. Yanes was not judged by a jury of his peers, but rather a five-judge panel. Three of the judges were professional judges and two were lay judges who are highly regarded members of the community. To get a guilty verdict, at least two of the professional judges and one of the lay judges must concur, said McRoberts. There are also different evidentiary rules and some hearsay is allowed.
The original idea was to bring Yanes back to stand trial in Palm Beach County after he was picked up on an Interpol Red Alert notice in Cuba in early 2016.
There is a 1904 extradition treaty between the two governments that calls for non-political criminals to be extradited on a reciprocal basis, but both sides have ignored it for many years.
Cuba has considered the United States to be in breach of the treaty since Jan. 7, 1959, just days after Fidel Castro and Cuban revolutionaries ousted dictator Fulgencio Batista, when it requested the extradition of Cubans who had embezzled from the national treasury, Batista henchmen and assorted gangsters, said Robert Muse, a Washington attorney who specializes in U.S.-Cuba law.
Havana never received a reply to those extradition requests nor for later requests for Cubans who had hijacked planes and boats to flee to the United States. The Cuban government from time to time has returned Americans who fled to Cuba and were wanted in the U.S. but has refused extradition requests for fugitives, such as Joanne Chesimard (also known as Assata Shakur) who have been granted political asylum in Cuba.
She is a former Black Panther who escaped from a New Jersey prison where she was serving a life sentence for murdering a New Jersey state trooper.
For many years, Cuba also had requested the extradition of Luis Posada Carriles, a militant exile who, along with the late Orlando Bosch, was suspected of masterminding the 1976 bombing of a Cubana airliner that killed 73 people. Posada was 90 when he died in a Broward County hospital earlier this year.
Nevertheless, Palm Beach prosecutors were hoping for extradition when the Department of Justice notified them that the Cuban government had instead “reached out to them, in the spirit of renewed cooperation, and said they would be willing to try Yanes,” said McRoberts. “Of course, we were very interested.”
The principle that allows a nation to prosecute one of its citizens for a crime committed in another country is called the nationality principle of jurisdiction, said Muse. It enables a nation to exercise its jurisdiction over acts committed by its people in any other nation.
The Cuban penal code also says that “Cuban criminal law is applicable to Cubans who commit a crime abroad and are handed over to Cuba, to be judged by their courts,” said Muse.
Months passed after the Cubans first made their offer to try Yanes. “We didn’t hear a thing [from Cuban authorities] until November 2016. They were going to give us some quick visas so we could go to Havana,” said McRoberts.
But then Fidel Castro died on Nov. 25, 2016, and everything got delayed.
In January 2017, McRoberts and Brian Fernandes, a Palm Beach assistant state attorney, finally headed to Havana for a roundtable discussion with Cuban authorities and other U.S. law enforcement officials. They talked “nuts and bolts” — what we needed to do and what they needed to try the case, said McRoberts.
The Cubans said they were particularly interested in helping with the Yanes case because it was a violent crime and there were no political implications, she said.
While there was no quid pro quo involved, the Cuban team expressed interest in continued cooperation on law enforcement matters and told the Palm Beach prosecutors there were some Cuban suspects who had fled to the United States whom they wanted to try.
“They spoke of a man who had fled here who had committed a double homicide in Havana,” McRoberts said.
Despite cooler relations between Havana and Washington since Donald Trump became president, “neither side wants to completely pull out of the relationship. They at least want to keep the lines open,” said Andy Gomez, a retired University of Miami Cuba scholar.
The Palm Beach team brought documents and evidence to Havana, and the Cuban side also requested additional documentation that was sent to the Department of Justice, and then relayed to Cuban authorities.
McRoberts and John Chapman, a Palm Beach County detective, traveled to Cuba in February and spent two days prepping the Cuban prosecution for the one-day trial.
The five judges were provided with prosecution and defense statements in advance. The defendant was allowed to review the evidence against him.
McRoberts, with a translator at her side, listened as the chief judge questioned witnesses. Chapman was the main witness.
The detective stood in the witness box in the center of the courtroom and recounted details similar to those in a probable cause affidavit in support of Yanes’ arrest: On July 19, 2015 — a Sunday morning — a friend of Schwartz called the Palm Beach Sheriff’s Office requesting a welfare check on the doctor because he had not heard from him in three days and they were accustomed to speaking daily.
When deputies arrived, they found two rear doors to the home open and discovered Schwartz dead on the floor of his ransacked bedroom. He had sustained two gunshot wounds.
Further investigation led deputies to two suspects, Yanes and Saul Rentana Lopez, a former employee of Schwartz’s. According to the affidavit, Rentana Lopez and Yanes went to the doctor’s home in an effort to get Rentana Lopez’s job back. The men argued, and Rentana Lopez said the doctor went for a revolver in his bedroom and wounded him in the bicep. Then Rentana Lopez said he shot the doctor once.
After Rentana Lopez shot Schwartz in the rib cage and he fell to the floor, “Saul said he could hear Schwartz moaning and groaning in pain. Marcos quickly entered the bedroom and picked up Schwartz’s firearm and shot him in the head,” said the affidavit.
Yanes will serve his time in a Cuban prison. “It is my understanding that he has appealed,” said McRoberts.
“My prosecutors said they thought he got a fair trial,” said Aronberg.
The Havana trial may not have been the last time the Palm Beach prosecutors will see their Cuban counterparts. The Cubans have expressed interest in coming to Palm Beach County to observe the trial of Yanes’ co-defendant, said McRoberts. Rentana Lopez was arrested on December 27, 2015, on first-degree murder and armed robbery charges. His trial has been set for Oct. 29.
Follow Mimi Whitefield on Twitter: @HeraldMimi