The validity of a detailed, videotaped confession by the man charged in the 2007 slaying of Washington Redskins star Sean Taylor is the central question for jurors to decide in his first-degree murder trial, according to opening statements Monday.
Assistant State Attorney Ray Araujo told the 12 jurors and four alternates that Eric Rivera Jr., 23, voluntarily spoke with detectives without an attorney present about how he shot Taylor while he and four friends attempted to burglarize the football star's Miami-area home. Rivera even drew diagrams of the rooms and where everyone was at the time, Araujo said.
"He describes in detail the plan, how they carried it out, who was involved, everything," Araujo said. "This defendant confessed to the murder of Sean Taylor, that he committed it."
Rivera's attorney, Janese Caruthers, countered that Rivera (pictured above) was coerced into the confession. Caruthers said he was "ambushed" by a team of investigators who had little evidence and was looking for someone to take the fall in a high-pressure case.
"They forced him to confess to a crime that he did not commit," Caruthers said.
Taylor, 24 when he died, was a Pro Bowl safety for the Redskins who had previously been a popular, locally grown star at the University of Miami. Prosecutors say Rivera and the others, all from the Fort Myers area, thought Taylor would be with the Redskins at a game at Tampa Bay the night they broke into his house — but instead he was home with a knee injury.
Taylor was shot in the upper thigh, which severed his femoral artery. Taylor had a machete in his hand, and his then-girlfriend Jackie Garcia and their infant daughter were also in the bedroom, though they were not hurt. Taylor died the next day from massive blood loss.
Members of Taylor's family, including his father, Florida City Police Chief Pedro Taylor, took up nearly an entire row in the packed Miami-Dade County courtroom. Garcia, whose uncle is actor Andy Garcia, testified that Taylor was unable to speak after he was shot and that she found him lying in a hallway near their bedroom in a pool of blood, gasping for breath. She called 911.
"I got a towel and tried to stop the bleeding," Garcia said, dabbing at her eyes with a tissue. "I ran outside and screamed for help. I told them someone was dying, to please hurry."
Garcia said she did not see Taylor's assailant or any of the other would-be burglars. But she did confirm that Taylor liked to keep large amounts of cash in the house.
In addition to the confession, Araujo said trial evidence will show cellphones belonging to the suspects were tracked near Taylor's house and along Alligator Alley, the route they allegedly took to and from the crime. Police also found a footprint at Taylor's home that matched the sneakers Rivera was wearing that night, the prosecutor said.
Araujo said investigators zeroed in on Rivera and the others because some in the group had been to Taylor's home before, once for a birthday party for his sister in which Taylor was seen giving her $10,000 cash. The Fort Myers group, Araujo said, thought there was a great deal of cash in Taylor's house.
"They had a plan and they carried it out. This was a burglary that turned into a murder," the prosecutor said. "Sean Taylor -- defending himself, defending his family, defending his home -- was shot by this defendant (Rivera)."
One of the other four suspects has pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and burglary charges and could testify against Rivera. The other three are scheduled to go on trial later.
Because Rivera was 17 at the time of the crime, his maximum possible sentence if convicted is life in prison rather than the death penalty.