A Single Hair

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

Attorney Marty McClain, who represents Rivera and several other Death Row inmates, says he's often seen police use similar offhand remarks to paint suspects as guilty. "It's the hallmark of police conduct that I find questionable," remarks McClain, who also represented Smith. "These loose comments are taken as evidence of guilt, and it always works out that they're never recorded."

None of these statements would have been made had Rivera invoked his right to counsel. And he claims he asked for a lawyer that first day but was denied by the detectives. "They said, "You don't have enough time to get an attorney. By the time you get an attorney, you're going to be charged with this, so you might as well try to help yourself now,'" he recalls. (The account of another sheriff's investigator, Robert Rios, seems to bolster Rivera's complaint. During an interview with Rivera February 18, Rios recalls, the suspect complained he'd repeatedly been denied an attorney.)

He says he kept talking because it allowed him to leave his jail cell and eat pizza and drink sodas with the detectives. "What we were talking about was like my past, my childhood, my high-school years, past girlfriends, their past girlfriends," he says, a touch wistful. "I guess they were trying to be chummy, you know, buddy-buddy. But I'm almost paying with my life for those few slices of pizza and sodas now."


The trial judge in Rivera's case, John Ferris, is retired, but remembers the case well -- it was the most highly publicized case of his career. Now 79 years old, Ferris says Rivera's admissions to Peck convinced him the defendant was guilty. "I don't remember any particular thing that proved he was guilty, but I had great confidence in the prosecutor, Kelly Hancock." (Hancock, incidentally, had prosecuted Townsend -- who was recently cleared -- prior to the Rivera case. The former prosecutor, now in private practice, was on a long vacation and couldn't be contacted by New Times.)

Ferris exhibited his admiration of Hancock during the trial: He almost uniformly ruled against the defense. The judge allowed not only the hearsay evidence of the BSO homicide squad but also testimony of a trio of criminal snitches who claimed Rivera had confessed to them in jail. One of the inmate informants was Frank Zuccarello, then a 22-year-old, smooth-talking criminal incarcerated for committing a series of burglaries, armed kidnapping, and other offenses. After his 1986 arrest, Zuccarello cooperated with numerous law-enforcement agencies, hoping for lenient sentencing. In court Zuccarello swore that prosecutors had promised him nothing in return for testifying against Rivera, but court records tell a different story: He struck an undated plea deal with the Broward State Attorney's Office that included a clause he would cooperate fully with Sergeant Carney on several criminal cases. Also, Hancock wrote a letter on Zuccarello's behalf to the Florida Department of Corrections just a few months after Rivera's trial. Zuccarello ultimately spent just 26 months behind bars for crimes that could have put him away for life.

Since testifying against Rivera, Zuccarello has admitted he intentionally fingered the wrong man in the 1984 murder of a Hollywood man named Charles Hodek. He's also been the subject of considerable controversy -- and media publicity -- in recent years for his dubious involvement in the 1989 conviction of Joyce Cohen for the murder of her husband, Stanley. Zuccarello claimed Joyce Cohen hired him for the murder, but his failures of three lie-detector tests about his testimony in the case have recently come to light. A former TV newswoman has also come forward, claiming that the lead police investigator admitted to her that Zuccarello wasn't really involved.

Ferris says he allowed the jailhouse testimony of Zuccarello and two other inmates -- prolific burglar Peter Salerno and child molester William Moyer -- because he felt the jury had a right to hear it. Ferris also made other rulings that Rivera's attorneys say tipped the scales against the defendant. The judge: permitted the prosecution to arrange for classrooms full of children to attend the courtroom as observers. Ferris says he wanted to educate the kids about the legal process;

allowed foreman Robert Thornton to remain on the jury after an investigator for defense counsel Malavenda discovered that Thornton was a member of a special club of BSO boosters who had contributed large amounts of money to then-sheriff Nick Navarro's campaign (Navarro had been quoted extensively in newspapers saying Rivera was guilty and testified against him);

allowed the 11-year-old victim in the Green Glades attack to testify in the murder trial, against Malavenda's argument that her presence would prejudice the jury; and

denied Malavenda's motion to admit information about the February 20, 1986, abduction and murder of 29-year-old Linda Kalitan into the record. The body of Kalitan, who was also on a bicycle, was discovered in the same field where Staci was found. That still-unsolved crime occurred while Rivera was in jail.

McClain contends Ferris's very presence was a conflict -- he'd presided over Rivera's trial for the Green Glades attack and had already sentenced Rivera to life in prison for that crime. Before the murder trial, Ferris opined in the Sun-Sentinel that Rivera was an incorrigible criminal who should never be allowed to "visit this conduct on anyone else." In an appeal following Rivera's murder conviction, the Florida Supreme Court ruled Ferris's statement wasn't grounds for a new trial. Two of the nine justices dissented, saying Ferris's remarks were improper and the case should be retried.

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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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