Fla. judge tosses verdict in charter boat slayings

/ Source: The Associated Press

Citing jury confusion, a federal judge in Miami on Wednesday threw out weapons convictions against a man accused of helping to hijack the "Joe Cool" charter boat and in the slayings of four people aboard.

U.S. District Judge Paul Huck said misleading jury instructions and his own failure to adequately answer a jury question about the law led to an "inconsistent verdict" in the trial of 20-year-old Guillermo Zarabozo. A new trial is scheduled for January.

"The lawyers didn't get it right, and the judge didn't get it right," Huck said at a hearing.

Jurors on Sept. 30 deadlocked on all the major counts against Zarabozo, including robbery, boat hijacking and four counts each of murder and kidnapping. But the jury did convict him on four counts of using a firearm in a violent crime. That his 9mm Glock handgun was used in the slayings was not disputed.

Huck agreed with Zarabozo's lawyers that the jury could not have convicted him on the weapons counts unless they also found him guilty of at least one of the violent crimes. Jurors signaled their confusion during deliberations when they asked in a note if Zarabozo was "automatically" a participant in the violence even if he was unaware the crimes would be committed.

Slain were the captain, 27-year-old Jake Branam; his wife, 30-year-old Kelley Branam; and crew members Scott Gamble, 35, and Samuel Kairy, 27.

Zarabozo testified that another man, 36-year-old Arkansas robbery fugitive Kirby Archer, was to blame for hijacking the 47-foot "Joe Cool" in September 2007 out of Miami and that Archer alone killed the boaters. Zarabozo said he brought his Glock aboard because Archer falsely told him they were headed to the Bahamas for a high-paying security job.

'Irrational verdict'
Zarabozo attorney Anthony Natale said there was little choice but to try the case a second time on all 16 counts, including the weapons charges that carry a potential life prison sentence.

"We call it an irrational verdict," Natale said. "We should be granted a new trial so it can be done correctly."

Prosecutors can appeal Huck's ruling. Assistant U.S. Attorney Karen Gilbert said a decision would be made on that within 30 days, and the timing of an appeal could delay the scheduled Jan. 20 retrial.

Archer is serving five life prison terms after pleading guilty to all charges in the case, including murder. At his sentencing hearing, Archer said he shot only two of the four victims, and prosecutors have pinned blame for two of the killings on Zarabozo.

Testimony indicated the pair chartered the "Joe Cool" to go to Bimini, Bahamas, but then took over the vessel and attempted to make it to Cuba. They were forced into the boat's life raft when they ran out of fuel and were eventually rescued by the Coast Guard.