A Single Hair

After a severely flawed trial, Michael Rivera was convicted of killing a little girl. New DNA evidence may help him.

The detectives needed more than just Peck's testimony -- and they managed to get it.


If Rivera was free-falling at the time, detectives Scheff and Amabile were on the ascent. After making their names -- and winning the honor of "Deputies of the Month" -- by arresting Frank Lee Smith for the rape and murder of eight-year-old Shandra Whitehead, they were on the fast track to earning their brass.

Numerous problems, of course, complicated the BSO case against Smith, some of them outrageous. But Scheff's testimony about an unrecorded conversation with the accused now seems very suspicious. Trying to draw a reaction, Scheff alleged that a boy had witnessed Smith killing Shandra. After Smith heard that allegation, he became "very agitated," Scheff testified. "[Smith] told me, "No way that kid could have seen me. It was too dark!... The lights were out.'"

Bolstering Scheff's testimony was then-sergeant Tom Carney, who told the court he used the same ploy on Smith and got exactly the same reaction (only this time he became "hostile," Carney testified). If the deputies are to be believed, Smith made a damning partial confession to a crime he had not committed. (None of the detectives is permitted to comment publicly on these cases until the BSO review is complete, says sheriff's spokeswoman Cheryl Stopnick.)

On February 13, 1986, detectives led Rivera to the same eight-by-eight-foot interrogation room where they had questioned Smith. That day Rivera was interrogated off and on for 13 hours, the first of several grueling sessions during a six-day period. Although Rivera denied the murder from beginning to end, several detectives would later testify he had made numerous damning statements, and all of them were used in court against him.

None of the statements was recorded, but Rivera acknowledges making most of them. However, he claims they were taken out of context and made to look like admissions when they weren't.

Sheriff's officials testified Rivera had told them, "If I talk to you guys, I'll be in jail for the next 20 years." They said he remarked that "describing the killer would be like describing myself," and that he offered to detectives the belief that the murderer probably wouldn't really have dumped the body in Lake Okeechobee because he wouldn't have enough gas to get there. Scheff told the jury it seemed Rivera was talking from "personal experience."

During a series of lie-detector tests administered by Det. Thomas Eastwood, the BSO polygrapher at the time, Rivera broke down crying and admitted to the attack on the girl at Green Glades. "I don't want to do these terrible things," Rivera told Eastwood. "I don't want to go back to jail. They will kill me for the things I've done." After that interrogation police charged Rivera with attempted murder and kidnapping, for which he was later sentenced to life in prison without parole. But Rivera wasn't done talking.

The following afternoon, on Valentine's Day, deputies questioned Rivera again after an exterminator happened upon Staci's body in Coral Springs. Sergeant Carney sprang into action. He entered the interrogation room and told Rivera that BSO had the technology to find fingerprints on the body. As in Smith's case, it was a ploy to draw a reaction, and the detective got one. Rivera became "noticeably nervous," Carney later testified, and said, "I bet you guys do have fingerprints."

The BSO detectives also told jurors that at one point Rivera told them he blacked out and didn't "remember killing Staci."

While prosecutor Kelly Hancock used each of these alleged partial confessions in his closing argument, Rivera's side of the story never came out. On the advice of his trial attorney, Edward Malavenda, the accused didn't testify.

To New Times Rivera explained that he believed if he spoke with Scheff and Amabile he would indeed wind up serving a 20-year prison sentence. Not because he'd killed anyone but because any new conviction -- be it for exposure, assault, drugs, or burglary -- would likely put him away for that long.

Rivera also contends the deputies duped him into pretending he was the killer. During that game he made the damaging statements about the killer being short on gas. "I was sick already all right? I mean, I'm fantasizing about this crazy stuff, and I'm thinking, You know, maybe it's not a far step to put myself in the place of this other person and maybe give them some kind of clue," he explains. "Come to find out it was just a whole ploy on their part. I screwed myself."

Rivera contends Carney's testimony was also misleading. "I said sarcastically, sarcastically, that, "Yeah, I bet you do have fingerprints,'" he recalls. "They turned it around like I said it as an admission. Yeah, I got irritable -- I started thinking they were trying to set me up. I thought they were going to get fingerprints of mine, from a glass or something, and say they were on the body."

And Rivera denies saying he didn't remember killing Staci, though he acknowledges telling deputies he might have blacked out that Thursday night while on crack. "When we go to trial, it's, "I don't remember killing Staci.' I never said that," he states. "Jeez, if I killed somebody, I'm going to remember it. It was their suggestion, and I would reject that."

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2 comments
vicdevore
vicdevore

I lived on that field in Lauderdale Lakes from birth, 1979 until 1987.  I remember a time when I was riding my bike with my old brother through the field, the same field Staci rode her bike through, and I can remember making it to the rear parking/truck loading area behind Winn Dixie.  I remember a huge puddle in the middle of the parking lot, and I remember a van with two men, and I remember my brother being alarmed or scared, the van seemed to be stuck in the water, and the men in the van seemed unusually and suspiciously interested in us, and my brother re-routed us towards Oakland Park Blvd so we could make it back home safely.  I don't know if this was before or after Staci was murded, but I would assume it was before.  This is a memory that somewhat haunting because I know what happened to Staci... very creepy.


vicdevore
vicdevore

I lived on that field in Lauderdale Lakes from birth, 1979 until 1987.  I remember a time when I was riding my bike with my old brother through the field, the same field Staci rode her bike through, and I can remember making it to the rear parking/truck loading area behind Winn Dixie.  I remember a huge puddle in the middle of the parking lot, and I remember a van with two men, and I remember my brother being alarmed or scared, the van seemed to be stuck in the water, and the men in the van seemed unusually and suspiciously interested in us, and my brother re-routed us towards Oakland Park Blvd so we could make it back home safely.  I don't know if this was before or after Staci was murded, but I would assume it was before.  This is a memory that somewhat haunting because I know what happened to Staci... very creepy.


 
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