- The State’s case against Eric Rivera was premised heavily on his videotaped confession.
- In spite of that recorded confession, the jury found him not guilty of the most serious offense, after days of deliberation
Four days into the jury deliberation on the charges against Eric Rivera, it was shaping up to be a greater upset than the Casey Anthony acquittal. Unlike that case, based wholly on circumstantial evidence, the case against Rivera looked like a slam dunk. Just days after NFL and Miami Hurricane star Sean Taylor was killed during a botched robbery, tips led detectives to Rivera and four confederates. Rivera agreed to speak to detectives and, on video, admitted to taking part in the robbery, kicking in Taylor’s door, and firing the fatal shot. Trial watchers expected a very quick finding of guilt, and the extensive deliberations must have had the prosecutors sweating.
But how did a case that appeared so strong end up hanging in the balance for so long? The confession was played for the jury, in spite of defense efforts to exclude it from consideration. The defense team did a masterful job of creating doubt in the face of their own client’s damning statement.
The Defense attacked the case by challenging the validity of the confession, alleging that it had been coerced by law enforcement. Officers testified to the contrary, stating that Rivera chose to speak with them completely voluntarily. But the poor procedures utilized by the cops cast the whole statement in a questionable light and opened a door that the defense was able to exploit. The detectives failed to record all of their communication with the suspect. That allowed the defense to allege wrongdoing prior to the recorded segment. The Defendant testified that detectives suggested his family was at risk to compel him to make the statement, and that they fed him facts they needed him to include. Since not everything was recorded, the State didn’t have concrete evidence to refute it. They only had the testimony of detectives, whose motives were clear and whose overall behavior was probably considered unprofessional, at best, by the jury. Additionally, law enforcement looked bad by not allowing Rivera’s parents to be present (he was a minor at the time), by conducting interviews at an unusual location, and by not following up on some of the information that could have confirmed the statements. The law enforcement shortcomings played right into the defense theory that they were looking to close a high-profile case, and this kid was a convenient patsy for experienced detectives to manipulate into confessing.
The jury did not believe Rivera’s testimony that he had no involvement. They found him guilty of both murder and the burglary, though by finding that he was not in actual possession of the firearm, they essentially discounted some of his statement and did not find him guilty of being the shooter. The state is celebrating that they still scored two convictions to life felonies, and probably won’t address the troubling ramifications of the jury’s finding. Because of the poorly conducted investigation and interrogation by detectives in the case, the jury chose not to accept part of the Defendant’s statement. That means one of two troubling possibilities: 1. That the police actions rendered the Defendant’s confession unbelievable. OR 2. The detectives extracted a false confession to things that the defendant didn’t do.
Think about that. Clearly the first possibility is more likely. Either way, it’s scary. Prosecutors may have been lucky to get any conviction in light of the trouble the jury had reaching consensus on this case. Eric Rivera had a chance to walk, due directly to poor detective work. The aggressive tactics that sought a confession at the expense of ensuring due process and the Defendant’s rights nearly caused the confession to be fatally flawed. It took masterful work by his defense team, Chris Brown and Janese Caruthers, to create some doubt in the jury’s mind. And without a good cross examination of the Defendant on the stand, Rivera may have completely sold his testimony to the jury.
And here’s another scary thought. Rivera testified that co-defendant Venjah Hunte was the actual shooter. Hunte already got a deal from the state, which presumably included him giving testimony. Apparently, his testimony was unimpressive enough the state declined to call him as a witness in this trial. Rivera has been acquitted of being the shooter, but the man he implicated as the shooter will be a free man in less than 20 years from now.
Rivera has quite a few issues to raise on appeal, and some of the rulings were risky. First and foremost, the judge ruled that the defense expert on coerced confessions was not allowed to testify. The defense will challenge the ruling denying the suppression of the confession, though the appellate courts generally defer to trial courts on such factual determinations. There will likely be several more issues raised. The appeal will follow sentencing which won’t happen until at least December. The Court indicated a desire to sentence before Christmas, but the pre-sentence report won’t be complete until about Dec. 10, so it would not be a surprise for the sentencing to be pushed until January.