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.

As the proceedings continued, Bragdon and a colleague attempted to invoke the defendants' right to appear in court: "Judge, we object to the continuance of this."

Judge Spencer's reply: "Overruled. Actually, I'm conducting an ex parte hearing. I won't recognize objections."

Spencer denied bond for Lazo and Sanbrana, and also denied phone privileges from jail. "If they could [have] come up with witnesses," the judge says today, "they could have [presented their case], but they didn't want to. They never took further action. In this case no testimony was ever presented that they [Lazo and Sanbrana] were not a threat to the community."

The judge confirms that the defendants' purported gang ties had something to do with his ruling, and with his subsequent refusals to grant bond. The officer who arrested Lazo and Sanbrana wrote in his report that the murder victim had been a "gang member associate" of the pair. Morales also stated that Lazo belonged to a gang called the Second Street Fellas, and that he had been stopped on his way to court that day by friends of Lazo warning him not to testify. (A prosecutor familiar with the case says today that he doesn't think the murder or the alleged episodes of witness-tampering were gang-related.) In any event Lazo is, in the words of attorney Walter Reynoso, "no Snow White." At the time of his arrest he was enrolled in a pretrial-diversion program for first offenders, having been picked up for attempting to burglarize a car.

No witnesses testified at a subsequent hearing on February 3, when bond was again denied. On April 15, when Lazo's new attorney Jose Dorta was granted another bond hearing, he brought to court six witnesses to testify on Lazo's behalf A including relatives of the murder victim and witnesses disputing Morales's version of the November confrontation. But Judge Spencer refused to permit the witnesses to testify. "Counsel, you know, I can only hear the same argument just a couple of times. Then I don't have to hear it time and time and time again," the judge declared.

Dorta contended that Spencer had never actually heard a full defense of the charges against Lazo. "Basically," he argued, "the presumption of innocence is being thrown out the window on behalf of my defendant." Bond was denied nevertheless, and Lazo and Sanbrana remained in jail.

Finally, on May 3, at Dorta's request, Morales gave a detailed deposition in which he recanted his accusation that Lazo and Sanbrana had threatened to kill him. Deborah Gross, the assistant state prosecutor, sat in on the deposition and dropped the charges two days later. "I felt he was being harassed," she says, but adds that the evidence wasn't sufficient to support a criminal charge of witness tampering. (Other prosecutors who worked on the case speculate that Morales changed his story because he was afraid, or that his earlier account was misinterpreted. "He had a hard time expressing himself in English," Gross says of Morales, whose native tongue is Spanish.)

Even though his client has finally been released, Reynoso is still upset over the long-standing refusal to grant Lazo an opportunity to defend himself. "I was pretty outraged that the judge never heard any witnesses except this one kid who made the charges," asserts the attorney; Reynoso says Lazo is contemplating filing a false-imprisonment suit.

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