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Death Sentence Tossed Out In Teen's Murder

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

More than 15 years after a teen was abducted in Miami Beach, raped and fatally shot in the head along Interstate 95, the Florida Supreme Court on Thursday overturned the death sentence of one of her attackers.

The decision to order a new sentencing proceeding for Death Row inmate Joel Lebron in the April 2002 murder of 18-year-old Ana Maria Angel was part of a series of similar rulings during the past year because juries were not unanimous in recommending death sentences.

Those rulings are rooted in a January 2016 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that found Florida's death-penalty sentencing process was unconstitutional because it gave too much power to judges, instead of juries, in determining whether defendants should be executed. Subsequent Florida Supreme Court decisions said juries must unanimously agree on critical findings before judges can impose death sentences and must unanimously recommend the death penalty.

Along with overturning Lebron's sentence Thursday, the Supreme Court also cited the unanimity issue in ordering a new sentencing proceeding for Death Row inmate Terry Marvin Ellerbee Jr., who was convicted in the 2006 shooting death of 72-year-old Thomas Dellarco in rural Okeechobee County, according to the Supreme Court.

In the Lebron case, a jury recommended by a 9-3 vote that he receive the death penalty, while a jury voted 11-1 to recommend death for Ellerbee. Circuit judges followed the recommendations in sentencing the men to death.

Though the Supreme Court ordered new sentencing proceedings Thursday, it upheld the convictions of Lebron and Ellerbee. Justices Barbara Pariente and Peggy Quince, however, argued that Lebron should also receive a new trial. They contended a confession should have been suppressed because of Miranda warning violations.

The Supreme Court's main 28-page opinion in the Lebron case said Angel and fellow high-school student Nelson Portobanco were abducted after they had strolled on Miami Beach following a dinner date. Five men, including Lebron, forced the teens into a truck at gunpoint and ordered them to turn over such things as wallets, PIN numbers and jewelry.

The men forced Portobanco onto the floorboard and took turns raping Angel as the truck traveled north on Interstate 95, the opinion said. At one point, the truck pulled over to the side of the interstate, and Portobanco was ordered out. He was stabbed and kicked repeatedly and pretended to be dead. He was left by the side of the road but later stopped a passing motorist.

The truck then continued traveling north into Palm Beach County, where it stopped again by the side of the interstate. Lebron and another man took Angel behind a wall, where she was forced to kneel down and was shot in the head, the Supreme Court opinion said.

“Angel's body was found on the shoulder of I-95 behind a thicket of palm trees next to a retaining wall,” the opinion said. “Her hands were clasped together with their fingers interlaced. She was barefoot and had a number of abrasions on her face and an abrasion on her right leg, which the medical examiner testified were injuries that occurred close to the time of her death.”

Lebron, now 39, was later arrested in Orlando.