MIAMI — A man identified by prosecutors as the greedy organizer of a bungled 2007 Miami-area burglary that ended with the fatal shooting of Washington Redskins star Sean Taylor was convicted Tuesday of murder and burglary, and immediately sentenced to life in prison without parole.
A 12-person jury deliberated nearly four hours before finding Jason Mitchell, 25, guilty of first-degree felony murder and armed burglary. Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Dennis Murphy swiftly imposed the mandatory life sentence for murder, plus 40 more years for the burglary conviction.
Although trial testimony showed Mitchell did not fire the fatal shot, prosecutors say he is equally responsible for the slaying under the law.
Assistant State Attorney Reid Rubin said Mitchell hatched the plot that eventually involved five Fort Myers-area men after spending time at Taylor's home near Miami, where he saw the player giving friends and relatives thousands of dollars in cash. Rubin said Mitchell initially tried and failed to burglarize the home alone in mid-November 2007, returning with the group on Thanksgiving weekend to finish the job.
"It doesn't matter whether they planned to kill him (Taylor) or intended to kill him, he died as a result of that burglary and they are all responsible for it," Rubin told the 12-person jury in closing arguments. "At the center of it all was Jason Mitchell."
Mitchell did not testify in his own defense but he did confess to police in a sworn, videotaped statement. The man blamed for shooting Taylor, Eric Rivera Jr., was convicted last year of second-degree murder and sentenced to 57 years behind bars. Mitchell's lawyer, Robert Barrar, said Mitchell should be held responsible only for burglary, not for Rivera's actions.
"Sure Jason Mitchell was there. But Eric Rivera did it on his own, on a whim," Barrar said. "Jason Mitchell was not a part of any plan to kill anybody."
Mitchell showed no emotion when the verdict was read.
Taylor, 24, was shot in the upper thigh after confronting the group of burglars with a machete outside his bedroom door. The bullet severed Taylor's femoral artery, causing him to quickly bleed to death. In the bedroom when the shooting happened were Taylor's girlfriend and their infant daughter.
Police say the burglars thought Taylor would be out of town at a Redskins game, but he was home nursing a knee injury.
Aside from the confession, investigators found shoe prints at Taylor's house that matched Mitchell's sneakers and had cell phone evidence showing that Mitchell phoned another member of the group in the vicinity of the slaying that night.
Three other men were charged in the case and two are awaiting trial. Venjah Hunte, 25, previously pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and burglary charges in a deal that calls for a 29-year prison sentence.
Taylor was a Pro Bowl safety who had starred at the University of Miami. A first-round Redskins draft pick in 2004, Taylor signed an $18 million contract with the team and was becoming one of the NFL's top defensive players when he was slain.
"He had everything to live for," Rubin said. "Sean Taylor was on top of the world."