Eric Rivera’s defense team insists that he falsely confessed to the murder of NFL star safety Sean Taylor during a botched burglary in November 2007 — but only after the teen-ager was whisked away and coerced by Miami-Dade detectives.
And so on Monday, after five days of testimony from prosecution witnesses, Rivera’s lawyers began mounting their case, attacking the tactics of Miami-Dade police and the validity of a key videotaped confession.
One of the first defense witnesses: the defendant’s own father, Eric Rivera Sr., 43, who told jurors that when he learned that police had picked up his son, he drove to two police stations, searching for him without success.
Only later did detectives call to take him to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement headquarters in Fort Myers, where the younger Rivera, now 23, had just confessed to shooting and killing the former University of Miami football player.
Before Rivera’s booking into jail, he was allowed to meet with his father privately for about 45 minutes.
“When I walked in there, he had a different look on his face. A worried look, like a scared look,” Rivera Sr. told jurors. “Very tired. Eyes really red.”
Prosecutors say Rivera and four other young men from Fort Myers hatched a scheme to steal cash from Taylor’s Palmetto Bay home. The burglars did not think Taylor, who played for the Washington Redskins, was at home.
But Taylor, wielding a machete in defense of his girlfriend and their infant daughter, confronted the group after Rivera kicked in their bedroom door, prosecutors say.
Last week, jurors saw the videotaped confession in which Rivera admits he shot Taylor, then shot out of the home’s sliding glass door to hasten the group’s escape.
In addition to the confession, cell phone and toll records tracked the burglars’ trip from Fort Myers to Palmetto Bay and back, prosecutors say.
The defense has argued that police “ambushed” Rivera after a traffic stop in Fort Myers, days after Taylor’s murder. Prosecutors insist that Rivera voluntarily agreed to questioning, was free to leave at any time, refused a chance to call his parents and waived his right to remain silent.
Two of Rivera’s cousins who were also in the van stopped by police testified Monday, saying they believed they were never free to leave police custody.
Also on Monday, the defense asked Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Dennis Murphy to reconsider his previous decision to not allow the testimony of a supposed expert on “false confessions.”
In documents filed with an appeals court earlier this month, the defense had asked to disqualify the judge after he refused to allow the expert to testify. The higher court refused. Murphy, who earlier had closed some pre-trial hearings, also barred the media from Monday’s legal wrangling on the defense’s latest request. His decision on whether the expert can testify is not yet known.
The defense’s efforts came after prosecutors rested their case Monday with one final witness: Dr. Satish Chundru, then the associate Miami-Dade medical examiner who performed Taylor’s autopsy.
He testified that the football player was shot in the femoral artery, the main artery that supplies the blood to the lower body. Taylor had no pulse when he arrived to Jackson Memorial Hospital, said Chundru, now a deputy medical examiner in Austin.
As the doctor testified about the injuries, Jackie Garcia Haley — Taylor’s girlfriend and the mother of his daughter — buried her head in her palms and cried as she sat in the courtroom gallery.
The 12-person jury will likely begin deliberations later this week, with closing arguments tentatively scheduled for Wednesday. Three co-defendants are awaiting trial while one co-defendant has already pleaded guilty.