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.

The defense offered only one witness, the defendant.
His key claims: He was innocent and had been coerced into supplying false confessions. The SWAT officers who had broken into his girlfriend's apartment beat him savagely, causing his head to swell. Later, at the Miami police station, Granado and two other officers had ordered him to fabricate his hourlong confession, under threat of further bodily harm. He was able to supply details of the Malaga robbery only because his friends had told him about it. FBI agent Del Campo had convinced him to repeat his bogus confession by threatening to arrest the man who was harboring him in Philadelphia.

In response to these assertions prosecutor Seff directed the jury to photos of Rodriguez taken shortly after the SWAT invasion, which revealed no visible signs that he had been beaten.

Defense attorney David Peckins used his closing argument to reinforce what he hoped would become the central doubt in the half-dozen jurors' minds: the dearth of physical evidence linking Rodriguez to the crime. If Rodriguez robbed Malaga, Peckins asked rhetorically, why were none of his client's fingerprints found at the site A not even on live .32 caliber bullet rounds later found by police in Malaga? Why had prosecutors produced no murder weapon, no loot? And if 80 Malaga customers saw Rodriguez wielding his gun, Peckins demanded, why had the state only been able to call four who could identify him? And of those four, why had only one had been able to choose him, with no doubts, from the original photo lineup? Not even Malaga proprietor Amador Fernandez, at whom his client had allegedly fired from a few feet away, could identify Rodriguez in the May 1991 photo lineup, Peckins scoffed.

It was an impressive job, but as the jury was dismissed to deliberate, Seff and partner Nelson Rodriguez were sharing the same silent prediction: conviction.

In the past two decades, as attorneys have employed ever more elaborate methods of defending their clients, the once intuitive job of culling a jury has spawned a cottage industry: jury consultants. Legal journals contain advertisements trumpeting the expertise of these wizards, who purportedly possess the psychological savvy to zero in on jurors inclined to look favorably on a particular defendant. Some lawyers have even taken to hiring "shadow juries," laymen paid to watch the proceedings and offer their impressions at the end of each day.

Though many attorneys swear by these innovations, juries remain the wild card of courtroom trials. No matter how much evidence a lawyer submits, no matter how persuasively he argues, each juror's mind remains as remote and unfathomable as an iceberg. Still less predictable is the way in which these minds will act in concert, how they will process the numbing accumulation of evidence and the rhetoric of opposing lawyers.

Of the six Rodriguez jurors, two -- Hattie Albritton and Miriam Fernandez -- refused to discuss the case for this story. The following summary of the deliberations is based on interviews with the other four.

A straw poll taken shortly after the jurors retired to the jury room revealed three firm votes for not guilty: Victor Boulos, the foreman, a gas station owner of Lebanese descent who came to Miami from Haiti in the early Seventies; Miriam Fernandez, a bank employee from Hialeah Gardens; and Hattie Albritton, a retired Eastern Airlines employee from Opa-locka.

Clarence Mills, Jr., a retired U.S. Air Force man also from Opa-locka, and Anita Rowden, a Miami switchboard operator, both felt Rodriguez was guilty.

Mark Laney, a physical therapy student from North Miami, was undecided but leaned toward conviction.

While early discussion centered on tangential issues, such as what kind of handgun Rodriguez allegedly carried and how unfired live rounds of ammunition wound up inside Malaga, the debate soon shifted to a central theme: whether there was enough evidence to link Rodriguez to the restaurant in the first place. The three jurors pushing for acquittal followed David Peckins's skeptical assessment of the fact that only a fraction of the 80 potential witnesses had come forward. Those lobbying for guilty countered that one eyewitness should be enough and cited the testimony of Candida Ponte, who had said under oath that she would never forget the face of the man -- Raul Rodriguez -- who had used the barrel of his gun to pop off her necklace.

When Laney brought up Rodriguez's own confessions, Boulos countered that the statements plainly had been coerced. What criminal, he challenged, would voluntarily spill his guts? The others seemed to concur that some pressure must have been applied. Employing this line of logic, along with Judge Fredricka Smith's instructions to disregard any statements "not given voluntarily," the confessions were summarily dismissed as a nonissue.

After nearly two and half hours, however, nobody had budged. The jurors sent Judge Smith a note informing her they could not reach a verdict. She ordered them to carry on. "I guess we're going to be here awhile," Laney said glumly.

"I got all weekend," Mills announced, and the rest of the group groaned.
A few jurors were concerned about the prospect of having to remain sequestered until Monday. It was at this tense juncture that Albritton (who, her colleagues recall, had said she was a veteran of more than one previous jury) pursued a different tack, one unrelated to the evidence. If we return a hung jury, she insisted, the defendant will likely go free anyway. Her assertion, accepted by the rest of the jury, had an obvious underlying implication: By not switching their votes, the guilties were uselessly prolonging the agony of deliberations.

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