Mosaic of a Murder

Raul Rodriguez said he killed a man during a 1991 holdup at Malaga restaurant. At his trial this spring, the jury didn't see it that way.

Raul Rodriguez was charged with first-degree murder, attempted murder, and multiple counts of armed robbery. Though he confessed to the shooting, his accomplices were charged identically: Under Florida law all defendants are culpable if they were involved in the commission of a crime that results in a homicide. The three pleaded not guilty at arraignment, were taken to jail, and began the long wait for trial.

Rodriguez proved to be less patient than his fellow defendants. On August 15, 1991, he escaped from his cell in the Dade County Stockade. Nine months later he was apprehended by FBI agent Joseph Del Campo -- in Philadelphia -- when a police-record check revealed that he was wanted in Miami.

After signing a form waiving his constitutional right to remain silent, Rodriguez described to Del Campo his dramatic escape. How he and two fellow inmates had loosened the steel bars of their cell window by working broom handles between them, then heated a homemade knife with a candle and used the hot shiv to cut through the plexiglass. After breaking the final barrier, a pane of glass reinforced with wire mesh, the prisoners hopped the fence, extra pairs of pants providing armor against the barbed wire. Four days after the break Rodriguez was on a Greyhound to Pennsylvania.

The fugitive told Del Campo that he had been living under an assumed name and supporting himself by selling crack on the streets of Philadelphia. He also gave the FBI agent an account of the Malaga robbery. "Rodriguez said that there was one individual [the victim Santiago] whom he described as a 'Puerto Rican,' who refused to hand over his jewelry and money," Del Campo wrote in his summary of the April 1992 interview. "Santiago picked up a chair and struck Betancourt, bringing him to his knees, then broke a drinking glass and began advancing toward Rodriguez. Rodriguez raised the .32 caliber Beretta, pointing it at Santiago, and stated, 'Back off, man.' Rodriguez said at the same time he raised the weapon and issued the warning, the pistol discharged, apparently striking Santiago."

Pending his extradition to Miami, the prisoner was placed in the custody of the Philadelphia police. On June 10, 1992, while being moved from one cell to another, Rodriguez purportedly blurted a single anguished sentence to his escort, Det. Michael Cohen, who later gave Miami authorities a deposition. "'When you're seventeen or eighteen and you do something on the street, you don't think much about it,'" Cohen recalled Rodriguez saying. "But when you sit in jail as long as I have, you think and think about it. I had to kill that guy; he was beating my friend. I pointed the gun at him and had to kill him."

Each time he spoke to law enforcement officials about Elaudio Santiago's killing, Rodriguez framed the shooting as an act of self-defense. Though statements from several eyewitnesses contradict him on that point, police records indicate the murder victim had an extensive criminal past. Police records also show that at the time of Santiago's death, the U.S. Customs Service had a warrant out for his arrest. An autopsy revealed a chemical derivative commonly found in regular cocaine users and a blood-alcohol level well above the legal limit for driving.

In his condition, it is conceivable Santiago might have decided to face down the young interlopers, not realizing his bravado would endanger those around him, and not imagining the lifeless mess he would become in the process.

"So Raul went up to the man, pointed the gun to him, and so the man walk," Ulises Carrazana recounted in his taped confession to police. "Then Raul see the necklace. Raul went to snatch it off his neck. The old man had got pissed and threw the cup at Raul, and Raul moved and that's when Raul started shooting."

In early 1993 state prosecutors and the attorneys representing the three defendants in the Malaga robbery case agreed to "sever" Raul Rodriguez's case from that of Ulises Carrazana and Juan Betancourt. Rodriguez's alleged cohorts would be tried in one courtroom, but with separate juries. The decision was primarily a practical one: There was no way to squeeze three juries into one courtroom. There were other factors, too. Owing to Rodriguez's escape, his lawyer had been unable to prepare a defense. The Dade State Attorney's Office, meanwhile, had indicated that prosecutors might seek the death penalty for Rodriguez because he was alleged to have fired the fatal shot.

Carrazana and Betancourt went to trial in September 1993. Those proceedings lasted five days. Prosecutor Flora Seff called eighteen witnesses, primarily patrons who identified one or both of the defendants as the men who robbed them. Neither defendant testified in his own defense; this would have required disclosure of their criminal past. After two hours of deliberation the juries pronounced each defendant guilty on all thirteen counts.

"Betancourt laughed throughout the proceeding and gave his friend several high fives," Seff noted in a presentencing report. Judge Jeffrey Rosinek sentenced each man to life in prison, with 25 years mandatory before parole. Betancourt is appealing his conviction.

There was little to distinguish Rodriguez's trial, which took place six weeks ago, from those of his friends. The state's list of witnesses and exhibits was largely unchanged; the prosecution did, however, have the advantage of calling to the stand all three law enforcement officials to whom Rodriguez had confessed A Miami Police Det. Jose Granado, FBI Special Agent Joseph Del Campo, and Philadelphia Police Det. Michael Cohen A a procession supplemented by four eyewitnesses.

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