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Former employee gets life in prison for Avila double murders

TAMPA — Julian Ospina-Florez will serve the rest of his life in Florida prison for murdering his employer and her husband at their Avila mansion in 2012.

Circuit Judge Samantha Ward imposed the sentence Friday afternoon after jurors deliberated about 90 minutes before rejecting the prosecution’s request for the death penalty in the murders of retired physician Hector Rivera and his wife, Debra Rivera. Both were shot to death.

Jurors convicted Ospina-Florez, 35, of first-degree murder on Tuesday and returned to court Thursday to begin hearing evidence on whether to recommend a death sentence.

Among other things, jurors had to weigh whether the murders of the Riveras were “heinous” and calculated enough to outweigh the defense portrayal of Ospina-Florez as having overcome early trauma in his life to become a hard-working, contributing member of society, dedicated to his family and without any previous criminal background.

At the time of the murders, Ospina-Florez worked for Debra Rivera as her driver and helper for her jewelry business.

“He’s a nice guy,” said defense attorney Theda James, imploring jurors to show mercy in their sentence recommendation. “He doesn’t deserve to die. He does not deserve to die. He doesn’t have the history of someone who deserves to die.”

James acknowledged that the Jan. 9, 2012, murders were tragic and horrific. But, she said, “What happened on Jan. 9 is not the total makeup of the man. The total makeup of the man is every day which preceded that.”

The prosecution asserted that the death penalty is warranted because there were two murders and because of the way the Riveras died.

Assistant State Attorney Jay Pruner held up a black, knit cap that had been fashioned into a mask. Ospina-Florez, he said, took the time to cut the eye holes out before the murders, then carried the mask and his gun into the Rivera home “to accomplish the goal of killing Dr. Hector Rivera and Debra Rivera.”

Once he entered the house, the defendant took his shoes off, Pruner said, “to make sure he could launch a surprise attack and the sound of feet couldn’t be heard.”

Pruner said there was a confrontation in the kitchen, and Debra Rivera struggled to save her life.

“The altercation is such that it leaves skid marks, her heel marks on the ground, the tile,” Pruner said. One of her earrings came out and landed on the floor. “She’s aware, she’s alert and common sense tells you she’s frightened.”

She wound up in the bathroom, where she raised her arm trying to fend off the gunshots, Pruner said.

Hector Rivera, who was in his study, heard the commotion, Pruner said.

“He has seen what has happened to his wife,” Pruner told jurors. “I submit to you at that time, the horror and the pain that he is experiencing and the fright is overwhelming because he is …literally running for his life.”

As he runs out of the house, he’s shot twice - once in the back and once in his chest. His lungs filled up with blood, Pruner said.

Pruner said that as a doctor, Hector Rivera “understands that his life is ebbing from him…He’s alive, he’s conscious, he’s in fear. He’s seen the horror, he’s experiencing the pain and he’s drowning in his own blood.”

Ultimately, he falls, face-up behind his wife’s Cadillac Escalade. There, Ospina-Florez delivered the final shot to Hector Rivera’s temple, Pruner said.

The defendant’s actions on that day, Pruner argued, provide insight into his character.

While the defense argued that Ospina-Florez should not be judged by that one day in his life, Pruner said that one day “translated into an eternity for Hector and Debra Rivera.”

James quoted a prosecution expert, who testified Ospina-Florez has an avoidant personality disorder.

“What happened in that house is not characteristic of Mr. Ospina-Florez,” James said. “Even when confronted with violence, his natural reaction was not to respond in kind.”

The psychiatrist, Emily Lazarou, said avoidant personality disorder is “sort of a nervous personality style ... a real sense, a fear of being judged by others or criticized by others.”

Lazarou said Debra Rivera criticized Ospina-Florez, telling him he needed to get his head checked. Ospina-Florez simmered, Lazarou said, his resentment building. People with that personality disorder “can’t take the constant abuse, constant humiliation and embarrassment” she said. “Sometimes they can act out in an aggressive manner.”

James, in her summation, noted Lazarou said Ospina-Florez “exploded.” This, James said, is not heightened premeditation, an aggravating factor asserted by the prosecution.

She noted the defendant, who was 32 when he was arrested for the murders, had no prior criminal history. “He’s not the worst of the worst offenders.”

Although Ospina-Florez remained silently in his seat in court Friday, he blurted out Thursday that the jury had convicted an “innocent man.”

Lazarou testified, outside the presence of jurors, that Ospina-Florez continues to maintain his innocence and suspects another employee of the Riveras is the real killer.

Lazarou said Ospina-Florez told her the other employees knew about his gun and one could have broken into his car and stolen it.

He said the reason his footprints were found all over the house was he was running around “because it wasn’t normal for him to see people dead.” He didn’t remember putting his shoes on over his bloody socks.

He said the killer told him if he moved, he would die. He didn’t recognize the voice, he said.

The Rivera family released a short statement after the trial saying family members are “relieved that this chapter of our family tragedy has concluded and justice has been served.’’

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