Hearing Impaired

Julio Lazo didn't spend six months in jail because a judge thought he was lying A he never even got a chance to speak

A few months ago, while Walter Reynoso was having a cup of coffee in the federal courthouse downtown, he was approached by a distraught cafeteria worker who recognized the Coconut Grove criminal lawyer. Martha Rodriguez, a Nicaraguan immigrant, began crying as she told Reynoso about her son, who was being held without bond in the Dade Pretrial Detention Center. Nineteen-year-old Julio Lazo had been arrested the previous November and charged with trespassing and witness-tampering, in connection with a murder investigation. It looked as if Lazo might never get out, said Rodriguez. Like all mothers, she was convinced her son was innocent. Though a bit skeptical, Reynoso told her he'd look into it.

A mother's intuition appears to have been right: Early in May the Dade State Attorney's Office dropped the charges and Julio Lazo walked out of jail a free man, as did fellow defendant Oscar Sanbrana, also nineteen. For the previous six months, however, a central tenet of constitutional law appears to have been ignored: Neither Lazo nor Sanbrana was ever given a chance to present his side of the story in court. "The system failed," declares attorney Jose Dorta, who worked on the case pro bono for Reynoso's firm.

But to the judge and prosecutors who demanded that Lazo be kept in jail without bond and prevented him from testifying in his own defense, no apologies are necessary. "I heard strong evidence supporting the allegations that this defendant was threatening a witness and [the witness] was going to be killed," asserts Circuit Court Judge W. Thomas Spencer, who denied repeated requests that Lazo be allowed to post bond or present witnesses on his behalf. The former lead prosecutor in the case, Thomas McCormack, adds darkly, "The way the threats were coming, and just the behavior of these people, was consistent with gang activity."

"I didn't think I'd ever be allowed to speak," Julio Lazo says now of his incarceration. "I thought I was sunk."

The accusations against Lazo are part of a complex, often contradictory, web of fear and confusion that began with the 1993 murder of Carlos Santamaria, the eighteen-year-old victim shot to death in a dispute over a motor scooter. On a hot August night Elvis Morales and Reynaldo Cuello-Tito set off on a bicycle A with Morales on the handlebars A to look for the suspected thief of Cuello-Tito's scooter. According to Morales and several other witnesses, Cuello-Tito found Santamaria in the vicinity of NW Second Street and Seventh Avenue, accused him of stealing his scooter, and then shot him three times. The murder trial is scheduled to begin July 5.

It took nearly six months for the police to track down and arrest Cuello-Tito. In the meantime, Julio Lazo and his lawyers say, Santamaria's family and friends -- Lazo included -- were engaged in some detective work of their own. Lazo says that when he and his friends discovered that Morales had been present at the scene, they began pressuring the witness to tell them who had killed Santamaria. They had no idea, insists Lazo, that Morales was cooperating with police and had already identified the alleged murderer as Cuello-Tito.

On November 23 Morales was attending classes at Miami Senior High School when, he later told police, Lazo and Oscar Sanbrana turned up and threatened to kill him if he testified about the murder case. Morales reportedly ran off to find a City of Miami policeman and the two teens were arrested. Morales later testified that a few days earlier, Lazo had also said to him, "You owe me one and you're not going to save yourself from this one," which Morales took to be a threat. (Lazo and Sanbrana have denied making any murder threats; Lazo has claimed his prior statement simply referred to Morales's obligation to reveal the name of the murderer.)

To prosecutor Thomas McCormack, the immediate threat to Morales was clear. "This guy was afraid for his life. He came into my office at least three times saying that these people had told him, 'Don't testify or else we'll kill you.'" McCormack admits, however, that he is puzzled as to why Lazo and Sanbrana would have threatened Morales about testifying at the trial of their friend's alleged murderer. "I don't have an explanation for that. They may have been confused about what he was testifying to," he speculates.

To Walter Reynoso the matter is not nearly as mysterious. "There was such a lack of motive here [for witness tampering]," the attorney argues. "The charge didn't make any sense."

After the arrest of Lazo and Sanbrana McCormack requested an emergency hearing and asked that it be held ex parte, meaning that only one side would be permitted to state its case. Normally such hearings are held in a judge's chambers, but this one, on December 14, took place in an open courtroom, while the defendants' public defenders stood by helplessly, protesting the proceedings.

"If it's done in open court, it should be an open hearing," assistant public defender Frederick Bragdon argues now. "It's odd that we weren't allowed to challenge the evidence, while they were rubbing our noses in it." Indeed, Lazo was kept in a holding cell in the courthouse as Morales listed the various threats that allegedly had been made against him. "They said I was a snitch, and they told me they were going to kill me, and that everybody was going to beat me up," he testified.

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