Thursday, November 27, 2008

Justice moving slowly in Taylor case


A year after Washington Redskins safety Sean Taylor was shot and killed, one of the young men accused of the slaying has pleaded guilty to murder and four others are awaiting a trial that may not occur for years.
Murder cases typically take more than a year to go to trial in Miami, and cases with multiple defendants are particularly time-consuming, experts say.

Taylor's family is eager to see the case resolved, but they understand that justice can be slow, according to family friend and Taylor's one-time attorney, Richard Sharpstein.

''The family continues to support the prosecution and hopes that justice is done in this case, sometime in the not-too-distant future,'' he said.

Venjah Hunte, 21, has pleaded guilty to second-degree murder for a promised sentence of 29 years. Prosecutors may require him to testify against the other four men.

Hunte's attorney, Michael Hornung, said his client was just the driver and never even went into Taylor's Palmetto Bay home the night he was killed.

The other defendants -- accused gunman Eric Rivera, 18; Jason Mitchell, 20; Charles Wardlow, 19;, and Timmy Lee Brown, 17 -- are all jailed in Miami-Dade County. All face first-degree murder charges.

Veteran defense lawyer Terry Lenamon said that before defense attorneys can even begin to take depositions and conduct independent investigations, prosecutors have to gather up all the evidence and turn it over to the defense.

''The discovery process is very complicated. Usually in a case that involves an extensive investigation, it takes a minimum of three to six months for the lead detective to get his reports together,'' Lenamon said. ``The whole team of investigators has to provide their notes, any sworn statements they took and their reports.''

Lenamon was among 10 attorneys representing five young men accused of kidnapping, gang raping and killing Ana Maria Angel, a Miami teenager, in 2002. Four of the men were tried and convicted, the last of them earlier this year. The fifth is still awaiting trial.

In the Taylor case, prosecutors have already turned over hundreds of pages of police reports, phone records and other evidence gathered by Miami-Dade detectives, Florida Department of Law Enforcement and Fort Myers police. All five accused men are from the Fort Myers area.

''Miami-Dade [police] are very thorough in their investigation,'' Lenamon said. ``There is always a lot of material in a case of theirs.''

Prosecutors waived the death penalty for the five defendants in May, a move that eliminates several issues that often delay cases.

But because the remaining four defendants are facing life in prison, defense attorneys are likely to file an avalanche of motions that Circuit Judge Dennis Murphy will have to consider before trial. Among the possible issues:

• Can statements that three of the defendants -- Rivera, Mitchell and Hunte -- gave police be used at trial?

• Can what Rivera allegedly told a fellow inmate, robbery suspect Adyam Devillafuerte, be used against him or any of the other defendants? Prosecutors have not revealed what Rivera allegedly told Devillafuerte.

• Can the contents of a letter Rivera allegedly wrote to a 17-year-old friend in Fort Myers be used? Prosecutors have not publicly released the letter.

Very little new information has been released to the public since the first weeks after Taylor was killed in front of his girlfriend and their baby. Extensive media coverage of the case last winter prompted Judge Murphy to issue a gag order, prohibiting defense attorneys or the prosecutor from talking about the case.

Records show investigators believe Mitchell was involved in an earlier break-in at Taylor's home. He had been there and seen Taylor give his sister thousands of dollars for her birthday.

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