updated 4/5/2008 6:02:41 PM ET 2008-04-05T22:02:41

A Florida jury awarded nearly $253 million to the children of a former friend of Fidel Castro who they said was tortured and killed in jail more than three decades ago — a verdict one juror said was meant as a political message.

The son and daughter of Rafael del Pino Siero, captured while trying to help a Cuban escape the country in 1959, expressed amazement at Friday's award, which was five times more than what they had sought.

"I was flabbergasted," said Rafael Del Pino Jr., who filed the lawsuit with his sister Milagros Suarez. "I kept thinking why did they give us so much more?"

It appears to be the largest award to date in a wrongful death claim filed against the Cuban government in Miami. Cuba's government was served with court papers but chose not to be represented in court.

The verdict is significantly more than the $187 million a federal judge awarded to the survivors of three people killed when a Cuban MiG shot down two Brothers to the Rescue small planes in 1996. The planes were on a mission by the Cuban emigre group to look for stranded Cuban rafters trying to reach the United States.

Those family members collected about half the judgment from Cuban assets frozen in New York, an option that probably won't be available to Del Pino's children. The assets are dwindling, and their father's death came five years before the United States designated Cuba as a state-sponsor of terrorism.

One juror said the verdict was a political statement.

"Basically, all of us decided that we all wanted to send a message to the world that countries don't mess around with U.S. citizens," said Thomas Crews, one of six jurors.

Falling-out with Castro
Del Pino was among Castro's friends at the University of Havana, but the family said the two had a falling out over his suspicions that Castro was a communist. Del Pino, who became a U.S. citizen and lived in Miami, flew back to the island in July 1959 on a rescue mission to smuggle out an anti-Castro activist but was captured and sentenced to 30 years in a Cuban prison.

He died in his prison cell in 1977 at age 51, leaving behind in Miami his two children. The Cuban government said he hanged himself.

The lawsuit filed by his children in Miami-Dade Circuit Court alleged that the Cuban government "intentionally, unlawfully, and with complete disregard for human life, tortured and killed Rafael del Pino by hanging him."

Del Pino bears no relation to former Cuban Gen. Rafael del Pino, who defected in 1987.

Emotional trial
The late Del Pino provided one of the trial's most emotional moments, when Jorge Borron, an attorney for his children, read a letter the ailing man wrote in prison in 1969.

He promised to buy his daughter "many presents," including a piano she had wanted since she was a little girl.

Borron stopped several times and sobbed as he read the letter, which ended, "Kiss, kiss, kiss, from your dad who blesses you."

Borron concluded the trial by telling jurors, "Ladies and gentlemen, this is Rafael del Pino speaking from the grave."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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