Eye for an Eye

Three teens allegedly killed a man for eleven dollars. Do they deserve the needle?

Shortly after 3:00 p.m., Jean pulled the Monte Carlo into a parking spot in front of a Goodyear tire store on North Miami Beach Boulevard just west of the mall. Less than 150 feet away was the Dollar and Beauty Store, where Ayoub was alone, preparing to enjoy a sandwich his wife had made for him that morning.

While Petit and Cortes acted as lookouts, Jean, who was dressed in baggy jean shorts, a gray T-shirt with red-stripe sleeves, and a red hat, sauntered inside. He continued to the cash register and began rifling through the drawer. Ayoub dashed toward the front door.

Just outside, the shopkeeper began yelling incoherently, trying to attract attention. He turned back to the front of the shop and began pulling hard on the metal door handle to keep it closed. Though Ayoub hoped to keep the robber trapped inside until police arrived, Jean overpowered him and exited.

Tim Gough
Tim Gough

He snagged eleven dollars.

As he was leaving, Jean fired a single shot into Ayoub's cheek. The bullet ripped through the victim's face, ricocheted off of his skull, and lodged in his nose. It is unclear whom the gun belonged to and where it came from. It is also unknown what the lookouts were doing when the shots were fired. One of the dollar bills was later found coated in Ayoub's blood.

Two doors down, Michael Williams, who was working at the International Soccer Supply store, heard the gunfire. The soft-spoken young man sped outside but saw nothing.

But at least two other witnesses did get a look at the shooter, according to police reports. "After stuffing a handgun down the front of his pants," the witnesses concurred, a man later identified by the witnesses from a photo lineup as Jean "fled westbound on foot, then disappeared behind an auto parts store, out of sight." The three sped off in the car.

Just moments later, an unidentified police officer drove past the store in an unmarked car. According to police records, he "heard an unknown black female yelling, 'He got shot, he got shot.' I walked to the front door and observed [Ayoub] lying on his stomach.... He was halfway out of the door and his face was on the ground."

The shop owner's Nike flip-flops lay on the ground a few feet away.

Ayoub was airlifted to Jackson Memorial Hospital's Ryder Trauma Center, where he was pronounced dead.

Between July 18 and September 13, Jean, Petit, and Cortes were all charged with second-degree murder based on witness testimony, surveillance video, and forensic evidence. All three admitted to being involved in the incident, but none confessed to firing the shot that killed Ayoub. Prosecutors plan to indict the trio on first-degree murder charges early next year.

Attorneys for Jean and Petit declined to comment. Cortes's attorney, Amy Agnoli, claims her client "was not involved."

Jean, Cortes, and Petit will remain incarcerated until they stand trial. Neither prosecutors nor defense attorneys have any clear idea of when that might be.

But owing to a recent spate of teenage crimes, the proceedings will likely trail a series of other cases that could strongly affect the trial. Indeed prosecutors might use this case to make an example of violent youth. And jurors might feel the need to crack down.

A sample of recent South Florida incidents follows. All await trial:

In February 2004 fourteen-year-old Michael Hernandez slashed classmate Jamie Gough's throat, stabbed him 40 times, and left him to die in a bathroom at Southwood Middle School in Palmetto Bay. Hernandez, who confessed to the murder, was charged as an adult with first-degree murder.

Fourteen-year-old Ronald E. Salazar of South Miami Heights choked and slit the throat of his eleven-year-old sister in July 2005. He confessed and was arrested on charges of first-degree murder.

Tom Daugherty, age seventeen, and Brian Hooks and Billy Ammons, both eighteen, were charged as adults with premeditated first-degree murder for the January 2006 beating death of Norris Gaynor, a Fort Lauderdale homeless man. They are also accused of attempted murder in brutal attacks on two other homeless men in Fort Lauderdale.

At the heart of the issue is the Florida law that requires any adult found guilty of premeditated first-degree murder to receive a sentence of at least life in prison without possibility of parole. This has led to several cases of overzealous sentencing. Perhaps the most egregious example was in 1999, in response to the shooting death of cab driver Richard Phillips.

An inebriated fifteen-year-old named Rebecca Falcon hailed Phillips's cab with a fourteen-year-old male friend from school and his eighteen-year-old cousin, Clifton Gilchrist, who was armed. Though it was never determined who shot Phillips, Falcon was convicted of first-degree murder. She is incarcerated in Ocala at Lowell Correctional Institution, where she will remain for the rest of her life.

"It broke my heart," Steven Sharp, jury foreman, says of the sentence. "It's terrible to put a [teen] behind bars forever."

Falcon was too young to receive the death penalty, just like accused lookout Petit. But Jean and Cortes could be sentenced to die despite Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy's 2005 opinion in a case related to juveniles and the death penalty. "Teenagers [are] different," he wrote, "at least for purposes of ultimate punishment. They are immature and irresponsible. They are more susceptible to negative influences, and teenagers' personalities are unformed."

But to Aisha Ayoub, the issue is far less complex: "They killed my father for eleven dollars. They have to pay the price."

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