By Jasmine Kripalani, FloridaBulldog.org
After a decade behind bars, Tyler Darnell and his family have renewed hope that his murder conviction could be overturned. For years, they have insisted that their son is innocent and now a Miami-Dade judge is putting the blame on his defense lawyers, saying they made so many legal mistakes it “would have made a conviction impossible.”
Darnell and his legal team will have a second chance at proving his innocence thanks to Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Alan S. Fine’s ruling to vacate his judgment and sentence and grant him a new trial. The office of State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle plans to appeal the decision, according to court filings. The paperwork will likely be filed next month.
On the surface, the murder case against Tyler Darnell appears weak because there was an alleged coerced confession by police, a questionable witness and improper statements by a prosecutor during his trial. Miami-Dade police did not find DNA or physical evidence linking him to the crime.
In October 2009, Darnell was arrested, charged and eventually convicted of second-degree murder in the stabbing death of Adan Castillo-Moreno and attempted first-degree murder of Federico Hernandez, who survived. Hernandez returned to Mexico after recovering from stab wounds. Hernandez told detectives that two men had attacked them. During the photo lineup, Hernandez did not identify Darnell as the stabber. Even with Hernandez’s statement, it was not enough to acquit Darnell.
Prior to the murder charge, Darnell had been arrested for marijuana possession but those charges were eventually dropped.
In 2014, a jury found Darnell guilty of murder and attempted murder for stabbing one man to death and wounding another. Darnell, 34, is currently serving a 55-year prison term.
Reliance on Darnell confession
State prosecutors relied strongly on Darnell’s confession, which his current defense attorney, Sarah Mourer, says was coerced.
“I am shocked he was convicted in the first place,” Mourer said.
His family members say that their previous defense attorneys, Richard Gregg and Jean Michel D’Escoubet, lacked experience.
“I guess we got what we paid for. [Gregg] had never tried a case of this magnitude,” said Darnell’s father, Bob Darnell.
Florida Bulldog reached out to Gregg who defended his and D’Escoubet’s work on Darnell’s case.
“Mr. D’Escoubet and I worked very hard for him,” Gregg said. “While we’re happy he has a new trial, we don’t agree on the grounds the judge based it on…I have never been labeled as being ineffective counsel. I’m not saying I was perfect, but the judge pushed us from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. The trial court judge also prevented us from using a false confession expert, while the state played that video confession three times. It seems like the judge [Fine] is retrying the case.”
A possible coerced confession, a questionable eyewitness and improper statements by a Miami-Dade prosecutor were among the troubling issues Judge Fine cited in his August 9 ruling.
Darnell’s family and friends testified that he was at home sleeping at 12:30 a.m. on the night of the murder. But Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office prosecutor Michael Von Zamft called Darnell’s family and friends “liars,” insisting Darnell was in an alleyway behind Lili’s Café, 10759 SW 56th St. on Aug. 1, 2009 and stabbed the two men.
Darnell chose to testify at his trial and at one point broke down into tears.
Von Zamft told jurors that Darnell’s tears were “fake” and “worthy of Broadway.”
Those statements “proved prejudicial and inflammatory in a way that is impermissible,” Judge Fine wrote.
Prosecutors routinely do not comment on pending cases. However, in court filings, Von Zamft’s statements are defended by the State Attorney’s Office, saying it was “an appropriate comment on the lack of evidence to support the defense theory.”
That defense theory rested on a possible coerced confession and mistaken identity by a key witness.
Darnell’s defense attorney, Mourer, says that his confession should be thrown out because two Miami-Dade police detectives pressured him to sign an admission of guilt after more than eight hours of interrogation. During that time, Darnell previously testified that police threatened to have his then 5-year-old daughter removed from his family’s custody. He also testified that police threatened him with the electric chair.
However, those allegations may be difficult to prove. Miami-Dade Detectives Juan Segovia and Jonathan Sabel interrogated him for eight hours, but only recorded the last 17 minutes in which Darnell confesses to the stabbings, claiming self-defense.
Police have not explained why they waited nearly eight hours before recording their interrogation. Miami-Dade detectives deny that they pressured him and say that he had confessed “calmly and cooperatively,” according to court filings. The Miami-Dade Police Department has since changed their policy and in 2014 a Miami Herald article reported that the department had begun videotaping all interviews with murder suspects from beginning to end on the heels of a similar announcement by the U.S. Department of Justice.
“Jurors are not as trusting of police officers as they used to be,” State Attorney Fernandez Rundle told the Herald at the time. “And everything now in this technological world is recorded and our jurors expect all that.”
The confession is also at the heart of the mistakes Darnell’s former defense attorneys made including not using “the proper standard to evaluate the voluntariness of his confession,” Fine wrote in his ruling.
Mourer also hopes to prove Darnell’s innocence by calling into question one key witness in the case.
Juan Peralta, a former restaurant manager at Lili’s Café, testified that he saw a tall, white man wearing a camouflage T-shirt walking quickly from the alleyway behind 10759 SW 56th St.
When Peralta was called in to police headquarters to identify the suspect in a photo lineup and live lineup, he was not told the suspect might not be there. Also, Darnell was “the only person in both the photo lineup and the live lineup,” Fine wrote, detailing the objections his defense attorneys should have argued.
Police never recovered a weapon from the scene. In addition, police searched his home and found no traces of physical evidence, such as bloody clothing, linking Darnell to the crime.
“Trial counsel’s cumulative errors and deficient performance prejudiced the Defendant [Darnell] to the extent that his judgment and sentence [should] be vacated,” Fine wrote.
Meanwhile, Darnell is in Miami-Dade County Jail awaiting his re-trial. No date has been set for it, Mourer said. His next court date is scheduled for a status update at 9 a.m. Jan. 30 before Judge Marlene Fernandez-Karavetsos.
One legal scholar who read Judge Fine’s ruling agrees with his decision.
“If I were a judge, I would find counsel was ineffective,” said Stephen Harper, director of Florida International University’s Death Penalty Clinic. “The judge has to find that the lawyer was so ineffective that a jury would have decided the case differently.”
Despite the setbacks, the family remains hopeful that their son will soon be free. They are pinning their hopes on Fine’s favorable ruling.
The family says it is a long-awaited second chance, but one that has come at a high price. His daughter Leah, who was 5 years old when Darnell was arrested, is now a teenager and has missed out on her father’s presence. Darnell’s mother, Karen Darnell, said she has lung cancer and that her son’s conviction has taken a toll on her family’s health and finances.
“We’ve been paying legal bills,” said Karen, 62. “Now, medical ones.”
His father, Bob Darnell, 63, works as a locksmith and says he is agonized and frustrated at the injustice of his son’s case.
“All the years I sat in the courtroom listening to the B.S. because my son’s life was on the line,” Bob Darnell said. “It’s not something I would wish on anyone.”