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.

Laney abruptly switched his vote to not guilty. "It was clear that I wasn't going to be able to win over the three not-guilties," Laney says now. "And it was clear that there was a good chance the guy would go free on a mistrial anyway. I wanted some resolution."

(Regarding the potential consequences of such an outcome, Albritton was misinformed. In the event of a hung jury, defendants remain in prison and must be retried within 60 days if the state requests a new trial.)

Rowden says she was deeply shaken by Laney's change of heart. Of all her fellow jurors, he had seemed the most articulate and intelligent. She had hoped for his support in defending her position. And with the group swayed toward acquittal, the new majority was campaigning to change her mind. While Laney gently urged her to reconsider the lack of physical evidence, others stressed practical concerns.

They wanted to go home.
After an hour, Rowden relented. "I was tired," she recalls today. "It had been a rough week and I needed my blood-pressure medicine." She announced through tears that she was changing her vote to not guilty.

Finally the group turned to the lone holdout, Clarence Mills, Jr. A small, taciturn man, he had contributed little to the discussion beyond the single word "guilty," which he now muttered defiantly. A sobbing Rowden looked him in the eye. "I'm not crying because I want you to change your mind. I'm crying because I'm upset," she explained. "But Clarence, do you think you could change your mind?"

The personal appeal was too much. "I'll go along with the program," Mills spat. "Not because I think that boy's innocent, but because you're upset."

Rowden remembers waiting for the bus in the rain outside the courtroom after delivering the verdicts, and seething. "I woke up the next day and I wanted to call the judge and tell her, 'This is not justice,'" the juror says now. "I wanted to tell her I wasn't one of those people who let that guy go. That I was pushed to. That I was a wreck. If I had to be in a hotel with those jurors over the whole weekend, I probably would have killed one of them. Then I thought that if I had killed someone, I would sure like those jurors at my trial, because they probably would have found not enough evidence."

Word of the Rodriguez acquittal spread quickly through the Major Crimes Division of the Dade State Attorney's Office, where it was widely attributed to a "runaway jury."

One could just as easily attribute the verdict to the U.S. Constitution. Because of the laws drafted to ensure all defendants a fair trial, the Rodriguez jury never heard many of the key facts surrounding the Malaga robbery: That Betancourt and Carrazana had both confessed, that their statements included consistent accounts of Rodriguez's involvement, and that both were convicted. That Rodriguez, at the time he stood trial, had been charged in five additional cases, including two armed robberies. That Rodriguez (and his alleged accomplices) had confessed to these crimes, too, and had been identified by witnesses. "I think everyone realized that because of the system, there was a lot of information that we didn't have available to us," notes Victor Boulos, the jury foreman.

Lead prosecutor Flora Seff took the loss, her first in years, especially hard. Privately the fourteen-year veteran of the State Attorney's Office spoke of the jury in bitter, even caustic terms. Publicly, however, she has acknowledged her own mistakes.

"Probably the biggest one was to think the case we had was too good," Seff concedes. "We thought it was a lock." Of the seven eyewitnesses who identified Rodriguez from photo lineups, for instance, the state summoned only four to the stand. Prosecutors also decided to present only half of the hourlong taped confession Rodriguez made to Miami police, on the assumption that the jury had heard enough. And although police had taken sworn statements from Rodriguez's girlfriend and her brother, both alleging the defendant's guilt, the state never called either to the stand.

Seff's cross-examination of Rodriguez was another lost opportunity. Given the defendant's vague testimony, the prosecutor might have pressed him on crucial points, such as how he managed to spontaneously fabricate his lengthy initial confession. Or why there was no physical evidence of his having been beaten by the police, as he claimed. Instead she seemed content to badger him about details. More than one bemused juror later observed that Seff never even asked Rodriguez where he was on the night Malaga was robbed. Nor did she call Del Campo, the FBI agent, back to the stand to rebut the defendant's claims of having been browbeaten. "Most of us had doubts about the defendant's story," Mark Laney says now. "But the prosecutor wasn't able to make his testimony a sham, which she probably could have." Seff does not dispute Laney's assessment.

Another miscue, this one more awkward for her to discuss, was Seff's decision to allow Nelson Rodriguez, a prosecutor with only three years' experience, to deliver the closing argument. Seff says she had hoped that notching a conviction would boost her less-experienced colleague's confidence. But his stiff recitation did little to dispel the doubts Peckins had stacked before jurors.

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