Miami Herald

DNA tests cast doubt on '87 murder verdict

Hair strands were not young victim's

March 21, 2003
Michael Rivera
Michael Rivera (2003)
Staci Jazvac
Staci Jazvac (1987)

Two strands of sandy blond hair that helped put Michael Rivera on Death Row for the 1986 murder of an 11-year-old girl aren't from the girl, DNA testing shows, casting doubts on a high-stakes Broward Sheriff's Office case for the second time in as many days.

The findings, made public Thursday by Rivera's attorney, could rewrite the ending of a murder case that once made front-page headlines in South Florida.

A jury in 1987 convicted Rivera of the abduction and murder of Staci Jazvac, a Lauderdale Lakes 11-year-old who vanished while riding her bike to the store for school supplies.

The DNA disclosure comes one day after a federal judge overturned the conviction of Timothy Brown for the 1990 slaying of Broward Sheriff's Deputy Patrick Behan.

''We told Michael about the DNA results and he's very happy,'' said Marty McClain, attorney for the condemned inmate. ``So are we. We're very happy with the results and, obviously, hope to get him a new trial.''

The hairs were the only significant scientific evidence linking Rivera to the Jan. 30, 1986 disappearance of the adolescent girl. Staci was asphyxiated, her body dumped in a Coral Springs field.


The two strands tied together a rather speculative prosecution theory: that Rivera had abducted Staci while cruising in a friend's blue van he sometimes drove. Prosecutors focused on the hairs found in the van in opening and closing statements to the jury and put a crime-lab technician on the stand to testify that the hairs ''could be concluded as being'' from Staci's head.

But mitochondrial DNA testing, unavailable at the time of Rivera's trial, proved conclusively this month that there is no match. In the genetic review, the March 11 report from independent tester Mitotyping Technologies excluded Staci as the source of the hairs.

Former Broward prosecutor Kelly Hancock, who took Rivera to trial, downplayed the significance of the hairs in a case he considered strong.

''My thought way back then was, it was a very insignificant piece of evidence,'' said Hancock, who is now in private practice. ''I would put that clear at the bottom'' in terms of importance, he said.

McClain hopes to add the DNA findings to other evidence not available in Rivera's previous trial, such as the testimony of Mark Peters, who now swears he had the blue van the night of the murder, not Rivera.


The hairs were only one of several factors that led a Broward jury to convict Rivera of the Jazvac murder and then to recommend death in a unanimous vote after only one hour of deliberation on April 17, 1987.

''I never wanted him to be sentenced to death,'' said Rita Hirsh, of Lake Worth, one of the jurors who condemned Rivera. ``But there was one man who cried and convinced us to vote for the death penalty. But it's unbelievable that the hair wasn't hers. That does create doubt. They didn't electrocute him, did they?''

Rivera had admitted to exposing himself in public,making obscene calls and accosting young girls. He made a series of ominous statements to a polygraph detective, including, ``Every time I get into a vehicle, I do something terrible.''

A former boss testified that Rivera had made crank calls to her and admitted to the murder.

But the DNA finding could persuade an appeals court to take a closer look at several other formidable flaws in the Rivera case.

''He was interrogated for six days without access to a lawyer,'' said McClain, lawyer for Rivera. ``Michael was a big coke addict who was going through withdrawals during the time he was in custody . . . His sense of reality was not wrapped too tight.''

The conviction has not aged well:

• A top BSO administrator discredited an important witness against Rivera in a sworn 1999 affidavit.


The witness, Frank Zuccarello, claimed Rivera had confessed to him in jail at the 1987 trial. But a dozen years later, BSO Maj. Anthony Fantigrassi dismissed Zuccarello as a habitual liar, ``an untrustworthy witness who should not be believed under oath or otherwise.''

• A spate of similar murders not far from where Staci's body was found pointed to the possibility of a different killer.

Just one week after Staci Jazvac's body was found, Coral Springs police discovered the body of Linda Kalitan, murdered and dumped in a field near the Jazvac crime scene. Defense attorneys were not allowed to mention the case at Rivera's trial.

Terry Gilchrist's body was found in May of 1990 in a Coral Springs field on Coral Ridge Drive. Ellen Stowe's body was found in March 1997, dumped in a field on Coral Ridge Drive.

• The trial judge, John Ferris, stated publicly before the trial that Rivera should not be allowed to ''visit this conduct on anyone else.'' Ferris also allowed classes of schoolchildren to sit in the courtroom as observers, purportedly for educational purposes.

A divided Florida Supreme Court decided the judge's words weren't prejudicial enough to warrant a new trial.

• Broward Sheriff's detectives may have concealed requests by Rivera to invoke his Miranda rights after his arrest.

Rivera's attorneys say he repeatedly invoked his right to remain silent during questioning but was ignored. BSO detectives claimed he had waived his Miranda rights. But Rivera signed a statement insisting on his right to an attorney. Detectives claimed Rivera changed his mind after signing it.

Among those questioning the Rivera conviction is Robert Rios, a retired BSO investigator who knew Rivera personally and played a small part in the Jazvac investigation. Rios remains troubled by the possibility that his colleagues ignored Rivera's Miranda rights.

Rios said he wasn't surprised by the outcome of the DNA test.

''I had an opportunity to interrogate this guy. And I wasn't convinced he was involved . . . I just wasn't,'' Rios said.

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