Her son sold his home in Colombia and left college to come to America, spending four years living on the streets and with friends, in the hopes of justice — a trial for his mother’s murder.
Nicolas Bernal, now 27, didn’t get it.
“I have been here four years, basically living in the streets because I am from another country,” Bernal told Collier Circuit Judge Frank Baker through an interpreter after Julio Perez, 49, was sentenced to 55 years in a state prison for murder and armed burglary. “I’ve only been waiting for a just trial and it never happened. I am really sad to be here.”
Bernal said he wanted justice. “And it didn’t happen today,” he added, questioning why there was no trial. “I don’t know if it’s for economic reasons or because I’m not a resident or a citizen of this country, but that is my point of view.”
Baker said he understood and was “very sorry. There’s nothing anyone could say about the loss you’ve suffered because that belongs to you.”
The unusual exchange came after three hours of plea negotiations Monday morning, when jury selection in Julio Perez’s trial was to begin. Jurors stood outside the courtroom until it was apparent it would be a long wait and they were sent back to the jury assembly room.
It was a strong case because Maria Perez’s murder was recorded as she frantically called 911 from a cellphone as she hid in a neighbor’s closet at Summer Wind Apartments on Pine Ridge Road after 9 p.m. on June 27, 2004. The two teens who let her in that night, Christopher Heiston and Amanda Tonge, were going to be the state’s star witnesses.
“It was an unusual case in that the 911 call was recording the events as they happened,” Deputy Public Defender Mike Orlando said after sentencing. “Depending on how closely you were listening to it ... you could pretty much hear everything.”
Maria Perez, 49, was at home when she saw her estranged husband coming toward her apartment holding a handgun, according to Collier County Sheriff’s Office reports. She ran upstairs, where Heiston let her into his apartment and locked the door. But Julio Perez shot and kicked it in and heard her in the closet. He fired twice through the door: one bullet grazed her head and the other killed her.
She was a hairdresser at a salon in Carillon Place shopping center on Airport-Pulling Road. A marriage license shows she married Julio Perez, a Cuban, in Naples in August 2002.
Julio Perez, a security guard who had lived at 4759 25th Place S.W., Golden Gate, fled and was arrested six weeks later on a drunken driving charge in Miami. He’s been in the Collier County jail ever since.
Bernal had rejected a plea bargain last month, when Perez wanted to plead in exchange for 40 years in a state prison. The plea deal was contingent upon Bernal’s approval — and he wanted a trial and for Perez to spend life in prison, the mandatory sentence for premeditated murder, a capital crime. The prosecution had already decided it wasn’t seeking the death penalty.
For hours Monday morning, Bernal sat with Betty Ardaya, a victim advocate for the State Attorney’s Office, as Assistant State Prosecutor Deborah Cunningham and co-counsel, prosecutor Tino Cimato, went behind closed doors with Perez to negotiate with Deputy Public Defender Mike Orlando and Assistant Deputy Public Defender Beatriz M. Taquechel.
Early on, it was apparent the judge was urging a plea. But Cunningham doubted that was possible, explaining, “Your honor, the victim’s son is adamant that he would like a trial.”
As Perez listened to a court interpreter translating through his headset, his attorney told the judge they were seeking finality for both sides. “Given the age of the defendant, 49, and the reality in terms of years, if one does the math ... (life) is pretty much equal to the other,” Orlando said of 45 years in prison, the initial plea that morning.
But the judge asked if the prosecution had another offer. Cunningham didn’t and said they would proceed to trial and pick a 12-person jury with alternates. At that point, the judge asked the attorneys to come to his chambers, where they continued discussions.
About an hour later, Orlando announced there would be a plea to a lesser-and-included charge of second-degree murder with a firearm that discharged, and armed burglary with a firearm discharge. Perez would serve 55 years in a state prison with a 25-year minimum mandatory term for murder and a concurrent 55-year term with no release for 20 years in the armed burglary. He’d get credit for time served and must spend every day of the 25 years behind bars.
Cunningham then told the judge Bernal didn’t agree and wanted to speak. After he spoke, he left with Ardaya. “Four years,” Bernal said, disgusted as he left the courthouse. “I had a home in Colombia and had to sell that to be here four years.”
Bernal, who was studying finance before he left school to come here, added: “The judge didn’t want it to go to trial. That’s bad.”
Cunningham said the State Attorney’s Office always considers victim rights, but the final decision is up to the prosecution and they must consider all factors, including time, cost and appeals, in addition to the well-being of the other victims and the eyewitnesses who were willing to testify.
“As horrible as it is, we have to make a decision based on the facts before us,” Cunningham said. “There’s no amount of years or sentence that will bring his mother back. The defendant is nearly 50 years old. Fifty-five years is life.
“With the 55-year sentence, we avoid any possible issues that could arise at trial,” she said, referring to the possibility of a lengthy and costly appeal. “You never know what could come up. This way, there will be no appeal.”
The Florida Crime Victim’s Bill of Rights says the next of kin in a homicide is entitled to the right to be informed, to be present, and to be heard when relevant, at all crucial stages of proceedings, to the extent that those rights don’t interfere with the defendant’s constitutional rights.
Orlando said attorneys have to consider what they’re trying to accomplish and the costs involved.
“There is a certain finality with a plea,” Orlando said, adding that his main concern was making sure the death penalty couldn’t come back on the table someday.
He cited the costs of an appeal, which is in the thousands, even for a court transcript alone. The plea had to be reduced, he said, because the judge did not have the power to impose anything less than life for a charge requiring life in prison or the death penalty.
Orlando called the sentence the best resolution for everyone involved, even if Bernal doesn’t realize it yet.
“I think he’s better off not having to listen to that,” Orlando said of Bernal hearing his mother shot to death on the 911 call. “I don’t think anyone would want to hear that and have all those memories.”
The murder was recorded on a 911 call as Maria Luz Pary Perez hid in a neighbor’s closet in North Naples.
Source : Naples Daily News