MIAMI — Miami-Dade County judge clamped down on official chatter in the Sean Taylor murder case Tuesday, barring lawyers and police investigating the shooting of the NFL star from discussing it with reporters.
Defense attorney David Brener’s motion for a gag order was all but certain to meet the approval of Judge Dennis Murphy, who last month chided the lawyers for divulging juicy case details to the media. Murphy’s ruling effectively silences everyone who is legally linked to the case — the four defendants, their attorneys, the prosecution, the police and Taylor’s family. Murphy did not directly fault anyone by name. But he said the defense has made a tool of the press, with one lawyer after another jockeying to pose his client in the most remorseful, and least culpable, light. This, plus one of the attorneys advised reporters where they might find the alleged murder weapon along Interstate 75. “There is a substantial likelihood,” Murphy concluded, “that continued pretrial publicity” will hamper the defendants’ fair trial rights there, or anywhere else in Florida.
Lawyers for the Miami Herald and The Washington Post opposed the gag order. Murphy also agreed to review the suspects’ transcribed police statements and consider yanking any confessions before they’re made public. The Lee County men accused of breaking into Taylor’s Palmetto Bay home in the pre-dawn hours of Nov. 26 — Venjah Hunte, 20; Jason Mitchell, 19; Charles Wardlow, 18; and Eric Rivera, 17 — were not in court Tuesday. Investigators say the men drove to Miami together and were startled to find Taylor at home. The Washington Redskins safety burst out of his bedroom, machete in hand, and was shot in the leg. Taylor died the next day in an area hospital. He was 24.
All four of the suspects have been indicted on first-degree felony murder and armed burglary charges.A prosecutor said in court Tuesday that the state has not yet decided whether to seek the death penalty against the three adult suspects. As a juvenile, even though he is the alleged shooter, Rivera is ineligible for capital punishment. Beyond the broad and persistent national exposure of the case, Brener, representing Wardlow, complained at length Tuesday about his colleagues’ specific comments in the press. They’ve confirmed that the suspects confessed, Brener said, and they’ve described plea deals as inevitable, suggesting there’s no point in defending the men at trial. Brener filed a written motion saying Wardlow might in fact have a winning defense — if he can find a group of jurors willing to hear it — that he didn’t know Taylor would be home, or that Rivera might be carrying a gun. Brener wrote that Wardlow backed out of the house as soon as he heard a noise.
“The image of suicidally remorseful, guilty defendants who wish to waive trial and (plead) immediately,” Brener wrote, “has been cemented in the public mind” and “eroded the presumption of innocence” promised the suspects in court. Attorneys for the other defendants agreed to abide by the gag order. They spoke little in court. Michael Hornung, who represents Hunte and earlier told reporters the gun was tossed into the Everglades, had a separate case in Fort Myers Tuesday and did not appear at the Miami court hearing. Taylor’s lawyer, Richard Sharpstein, has also been quoted in the news offering details of the investigation. After court Tuesday, he, too, said he would quiet down.
But Sharpstein said he didn’t think publicity would ultimately be a hang-up in the case.