Man Pleads Guilty In Taylor Slaying

By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 16, 2008

One of the five people charged in the killing of Redskins safety Sean Taylor pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to 29 years in prison, according to his attorney.

Venjah K. Hunte, 20, the driver of the vehicle that the suspects used to travel from Fort Myers, Fla., to Miami on the night of the killing, agreed to testify against the others as part of his deal, said Michael F. Hornung, his lawyer. He likely faces at least 23 years in prison, given a Florida statute requiring at least 80 percent of his murder term be served.

"In the best-case scenario, it's a 23-24-year sentence," Hornung said yesterday.

Hunte went before a judge in a closed Miami courtroom last Friday, Hornung said, with Taylor's father, Pedro, the only person present other than lawyers, Hunte and court personnel. Prosecutors requested the plea agreement be sealed because investigators were pursuing a fifth suspect, who was charged on Wednesday.

Richard Sharpstein, a Florida lawyer and Taylor family spokesman, said the family worked closely with the state attorney's office during the plea process and believed the sentence -- though not the life without parole being sought for all the defendants-- was sufficiently stern. Pedro Taylor, who is called Pete by his friends, is a longtime police chief of Florida City, Fla., and Hunte shared feelings of remorse with Taylor after the hearing, Hornung said.

"It appears on the surface that he's gotten a deal," Sharpstein said, "but he still serves at least 80 percent of the 29 years, which is a long stretch. It's no slap on the wrist. It's severe punishment and Pete and other family members were consulted and they approved the prosecutor's decision.

"Pete certainly understands the help that inside information gives to a case, and prosecutors always tend to look toward the lesser culpable people to solidify their case and have someone testifying from the inside. This is severe punishment, and with the others the family hopes each one, as it goes along, faces the most severe, harshest punishment they can receive."

Taylor died of massive blood loss after he was shot at his Miami area home during a botched robbery in November.

Several of the defendants have been seeking plea deals, according to a source, and Hunte's 29-year sentence, given that he was not accused of entering Taylor's home, could become a baseline for the low end of the sentencing structure.

Prosecutors recently waived their attempts to pursue the death penalty in the case, citing restrictions regarding the age of the accused. Several of the defendants have displayed a willingness to strike a deal and testify against their accomplices since early after their arrest, according to sources familiar with the case.

Jason Scott Mitchell, 20; Eric Rivera Jr., 18, the alleged gunman; and Charles Kendrick Lee Wardlow, 19, are also charged in the case and trial is set for Aug. 25. A fifth suspect, Timothy Brown, 16, was charged with first-degree murder and armed burglary on Wednesday.

Ed Griffith, a spokesman for the Miami-Dade County State Attorney's Office, said he could not comment on any matters related to a possible plea agreement because of a gag order issued to both the defense and the prosecution in the case.

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