MIAMI (AP) — Nearly six years ago, All-Pro safety Sean Taylor was at home nursing an injury instead of taking the field with his Washington Redskins teammates for a road game at Tampa. Unfortunately, a group of young men from southwest Florida apparently didn’t know that.
Prosecutors say the suspects drove across the state intending to burglarize Taylor’s Miami-area home, confident he wouldn’t be there. When the 6-foot-2, 230-pound player — well known as a ferocious hitter — confronted them with a machete early on Nov. 26, 2007, Eric Rivera Jr. allegedly fired two shots. One missed. The other hit Taylor in the upper leg, causing massive blood loss that led to his death a day later at age 24.
Finally, after numerous delays, jury selection is scheduled to begin Tuesday for Rivera’s first-degree murder trial. Because Rivera, now 23, was only 17 at the time of the crime, he faces life in prison instead of the death penalty if convicted. Jury selection is expected to take about four days.
Four other people were also charged in the case. One of them, Venjah Hunte, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and burglary charges and is expected to testify against Rivera. The other three are scheduled to go to trial later on lesser charges. Hunte’s plea deal calls for a 29-year prison term instead of life.
Although Taylor had some run-ins with the law and been fined several times by the NFL for various rules violations, his future seemed extremely bright before he was killed. The son of Florida City Police Chief Pedro Taylor and an All-American player at the University of Miami, the Redskins drafted Taylor with the fifth overall pick in the 2004 draft and he signed an $18 million contract.
Taylor quickly became a starter and was nicknamed “Meast” by teammates — a combination of man and beast — because of his hard-hitting style. He was named to the Pro Bowl after the 2006 season and was also very popular among Redskins players and fans. One of his best friends, wide receiver Santana Moss, said he still says “a little prayer” for Taylor every time he takes the field.
“I have a few people that have passed away in my life as friends that have meant something to me, and I’m always constantly speaking to them. That’s just something I do. He’s one of those guys,” Moss said.
The Redskins contributed $500,000 to a fund for Taylor’s young daughter after he died and, in the first game after his slaying, the team’s defense took the field against Buffalo with only 10 players on the first play — leaving Taylor’s free safety position vacant to honor him. Fans at that game got towels bearing his number, 21.
To many fans, players and others connected with both the Redskins and the “U” at Miami, it was heartbreaking to see such a talented player’s life and career cut short so brutally.
“He was a young man who was learning quickly how to be a great human being, and, to me, he was the best football player I’ve ever seen in person,” said former Redskins tight end Chris Cooley, a nine-year veteran who now does broadcasts for the team. “He was the most physical, the most gifted, the hardest-working guy that I’ve been around, and it was such an unfortunate thing.”
Former Redskins coach Joe Gibbs, now a NASCAR racing team owner, said Taylor began to mature and take a leadership role on the team after the birth of his daughter.
“It wound up being a true tragedy and it had a huge effect on all of us,” Gibbs said of Taylor’s killing. “He was one of those guys that with the way he played and his persona the way he was, he was a natural leader. You could see guys look to him from a leadership standpoint.”
The fatal attempted burglary was not the first time there was a break-in at Taylor’s home.
Police say someone pried open a window a few days earlier, on Nov. 17, and rifled through a desk and other belongings. No one was home that time, and it’s not clear exactly what, if anything, was taken.
Then came the weekend after Thanksgiving with the Redskins playing the Buccaneers that Sunday. Taylor was given permission to stay home with a knee injury, along with his girlfriend, Jackie Garcia, and their 18-month-old daughter, also named Jackie.
Police say two of the men charged had connections to Taylor: Jason Scott Mitchell had cut Taylor’s lawn and an older cousin of suspect Charles Wardlow had dated Taylor’s sister. Family members also said Mitchell had recently been at a birthday party at Taylor’s house, where Taylor was known to keep large amounts of cash.
Miami-Dade County’s former police director, Robert Parker, said the defendants were surprised to find Taylor home early that Monday morning.
“They were certainly not looking to go there and kill anyone,” Parker said. “They were expecting a residence that was not occupied.”
Authorities say they have obtained confessions from at least some of the suspects, all from the Fort Myers area, but pretrial hearings on whether those statements will be allowed in Rivera’s trial were closed by Circuit Judge Dennis Murphy. The judge also imposed a gag order on prosecutors and defense attorneys in hopes of limiting pretrial news media coverage that could make jury selection difficult.
The murder weapon has never been found. Prosecutors say it was thrown into the Everglades after the slaying while the group drove home across Alligator Alley.
There have already been at least seven previous trial dates set for Rivera. Cooley, for one, said it’s time for justice to be done.
“Breaking into someone’s home, into their personal safety blanket and shooting them in that environment is the most heinous, unthinkable crime that could have happened to a guy like Sean. It’s despicable,” Cooley said.