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A Single Hair

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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."

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.)

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Journalist Bob Norman has been raking the muck of South Florida for the past 25 years. His work has led to criminal cases against corrupt politicians, the ouster of bad judges from the bench, and has garnered dozens of state, regional, and national awards.
Contact: Bob Norman