MIAMI – A 23-year-old man was convicted of second-degree murder Monday in the 2007 slaying of Washington Redskins star Sean Taylor, who was shot outside his own bedroom after witnesses said he confronted young men who had broken into his home looking for money.
The jury deliberated about 16 hours over four days before returning the verdict in the trial of Eric Rivera Jr., who admitted in a videotaped confession to police days after Taylor’s death that he fired the fatal shot after kicking in the bedroom door. At the trial, he said on the witness stand that his confession was given only under police pressure and amid purported threats to his family.
Rivera was also convicted of armed burglary. Although Rivera did not get the maximum first-degree murder conviction, he still faces a potential life prison sentence. Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Dennis Murphy did not immediately set a sentencing date but will hold a related hearing on Dec. 10.
Rivera sat quietly at the defense table with his lawyers after the verdict was announced, showing no reaction or emotion. The courtroom was packed with Taylor and Rivera family members – and about two dozen security personnel – but there were no outbursts.
Neither prosecutors, Taylor’s family nor the family of the football player’s girlfriend would comment after the hearing. Rivera’s parents, sisters, lawyers and friends also left without comment, as did the 12 jurors.
In the confession, Rivera said the group of five young men, all from the Fort Myers area, had driven to Taylor’s house planning to steal large amounts of cash he kept inside. They thought Taylor, 24, would be out of town at a game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but didn’t realize until it was too late that he was home with a knee injury. Taylor’s then-girlfriend, Jackie Garcia Haley, and their 18-month-old daughter, were also home at the time. They were not hurt.
Four other men were also charged in the case and three will be tried later. Venjah Hunte, 25, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and burglary charges in a deal that calls for a 29-year prison sentence.
Testifying in his own defense, Rivera claimed it was Hunte who brought the 9mm handgun and who shot Taylor. Rivera insisted that he was not told about the burglary plot until the group was driving toward Miami, and that he stayed in the car outside Taylor’s house the whole time.
The murder weapon was never found. Police say it was stuffed in a sock and thrown into the Everglades.
Legal experts said Monday’s verdict appeared to be a compromise, with at least some jurors doubting the confession and questioning whether Rivera, who was 17 at the time, truly pulled the trigger – but not that he played a role in the burglary plot.
“They believed that he was part of the burglary and was present when it occurred,” said David S. Weinstein, a former federal prosecutor now in private practice. “There was no eyewitness to put the gun in Rivera’s hand and that is what at least one juror needed to convict him of first-degree murder.”
Taylor, a Pro Bowl safety who had starred at the University of Miami, was shot in the upper thigh, damaging his femoral artery and causing massive blood loss. Witnesses say Taylor was shot when he confronted the group with a machete outside his bedroom. A medical examiner said he was essentially dead on arrival at a hospital on Nov. 26, 2007, although doctors did manage to restart his heart for a while.
Aside from Rivera’s confession, police found shoe prints outside Taylor’s home that matched sneakers some in the group were wearing that night. Witnesses testified Rivera was seen driving a rented black Toyota Highlander believed used in the crime, and another witness said the group of five had burglary tools when they came to her house after Taylor was shot.
Taylor, a first-round Redskins draft pick in 2004, signed an $18 million contract with the team and was becoming one of the NFL’s top defensive players when he was slain. Several witnesses, including Garcia Haley, testified that he liked to keep large amounts of cash around his Miami house.
One of the men charged in the slaying, 25-year-old Jason Mitchell, attended a birthday party a few weeks earlier at the house for Taylor’s half-sister, Sasha Johnson – who lived in Fort Myers and knew Rivera. She testified that Taylor gave her a purse containing $10,000 in cash at the party, which was witnessed by all the guests.
That event put the wheels in motion for the burglary plot, witnesses said. Rivera himself testified that some in the group thought they would get between $100,000 and $200,000 to split up.
Also charged and awaiting trial are Mitchell, Charles Wardlow, 24, and 22-year-old Timothy Brown.