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.

Mark Laney says he found Nelson Rodriguez presumptuous: "He told us the number of witnesses we got was more than enough to convict, and I was like, 'Excuse me, but it was not.'"

With the benefit of hindsight, Seff concludes, she would have done a lot of things differently. "But you have to look at it from our perspective," she stresses. "We had already convicted his accomplices. We had three different confessions. The kid had confessed to an FBI agent, for crying out loud. I mean, as a prosecutor, you pray to have a federal agent on your witness list. In that situation, am I going to spend more taxpayers' money on a case that should be a lock?"

The point is hard to dispute, given the state of Seff's office, which is dominated by cardboard boxes, each bulging with the particulars of a new crime. Every week Seff faithfully inspects the pictures of her latest blood-spattered victim and scowling defendant. And every week more boxes arrive.

"Why so much confession?"
-- Miami Police Det. Jose Granado

Six months before the Raul Rodriguez trial -- on the same day, by coincidence, that jurors at the Carrazana and Betancourt trials were being shown photos of Elaudio Santiago's dead body -- Judge Barbara Levenson issued a ruling in his case, denying a defense motion to suppress Rodriguez's confessions to police.

"It is clear to this court, and the testimony is uncontroverted, that the police in Miami advised the defendant of his right against self-incrimination," Levenson wrote. "They did nothing to threaten him and followed careful noncoercive police procedures when bringing him to the station and questioning him.... There has been no testimony of physical or mental coercion. There has been no proof of any inhumane treatment."

Most defense attorneys would argue that this conclusion is erroneous on its face, that the very act of being arrested or hauled in for questioning A particularly following a SWAT invasion A is inherently coercive. Police, they argue, are versed in modes of intimidation designed to elicit confessions: refusing to apprise a suspect of his legal rights, lying to him about what other suspects have said, issuing false promises of leniency. Even roughing up a suspect a little.

Cops can also lie, and they do lie. To many observers, this has been the ominous lesson drawn from the trials of Rodney King, William Lozano, and slain Wynwood drug dealer Leonardo Mercado.

Skepticism regarding police, too, has spilled into prime-time television. The week before Raul Rodriguez went on trial, in fact, the popular drama NYPD Blue aired an episode in which a suspect was cowed into making a confession. Victor Boulos had it right: What criminal in his right mind would volunteer statements that could send him to prison for years?

Law enforcement authorities counter that criminals, especially young ones, often want to talk about the crimes they've committed. "They know they've really screwed it up and that they're getting caught," explains Jose Granado, the Miami homicide detective who interviewed Raul Rodriguez after the raid. "To confess is a relief, and in a way it's a status thing. For a lot of these kids, this [crime] is the biggest thing that's ever happened in their life. But what fun is it if you can't even talk about it?

"I would never, never pressure anyone to give a confession," Granado adds at the mention of the Rodriguez acquittal. "I'm not going to risk my reputation, or my unit's, for that. If they want to talk, fine. If not, fine. This is not the 1920s. We do not use spotlights, or the Chinese water torture. If it's a serious offense, the suspect is probably in the game already, and we'll be seeing them again. In Rodriguez's case, all those kids talked. They talked to everybody about everything. It was like a jukebox. We practically had to pull the plug to get them to shut up."

"Obviously the jury was very convinced by the defendant's testimony on the stand," Rodriguez's lawyer David Peckins says matter-of-factly. "The jury made the right decision."

It is tempting, in the face of what appears to be an injustice, to disregard the ground rules of jurisprudence. Namely, that a man is innocent until proven guilty. That he is entitled to a fair trial by a jury of his peers. That the jury gets the final say.

Raul Rodriguez is no murderer. As regards the fatal robbery at Malaga three years ago, he is innocent as a lamb.

Though his jurors could not have known it when they exonerated him, he will remain in jail, held without bond. In July he is slated to be tried on one or more of his pending charges, which include another armed robbery, aggravated assault, and escaping from the Dade stockade. Flora Seff says that as a matter of conscience, she will be handling the prosecution on these cases.

Because of his upcoming trial, Rodriguez's new court-appointed lawyer, Diane Ward, declined to allow her client to be interviewed for this story. The jury heard his testimony on the witness stand, that he was coerced into confessing. Of course, the jurors were denied the chance to hear all the defendant had to say about the crime, because the tail end of the confession he gave Miami police three years ago was not played at the trial. They never heard his own assessment of motive, for instance. Nor the plea he uttered upon learning that Elaudio Santiago had died A upon learning, in other words, that he had allegedly ended another man's life:

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