Life sentence for Julian Ospina-Florez, Avila murderer

Jurors reject the death penalty for the man who killed his boss and her husband.

Julian Ospina-Florez, center, was sentenced to life in prison for the murders of Debra Rivera and her husband, Dr. Hector Rivera. EVE EDELHEIT   |   Times
Julian Ospina-Florez, center, was sentenced to life in prison for the murders of Debra Rivera and her husband, Dr. Hector Rivera.EVE EDELHEIT | Times
Published September 4 2015
Updated September 5 2015

TAMPA — A jury Friday voted to spare the life of a 35-year-old man convicted of a double murder, recommending that he serve life in prison for gunning down his wealthy employer and her husband in 2012.

Although he had struggled to contain his emotions throughout the three-week trial, Julian Ospina-Florez barely registered the jury's recommendation.

In the gallery behind him, his mother clung to her youngest son and wept. Family members of the victims walked out quietly, later releasing a statement asking for privacy and saying they were "relieved that this chapter of our family tragedy has concluded and justice has been served."

Under state law, it fell to Hillsborough Circuit Judge Samantha Ward to decide whether to sentence Ospina-Florez to death or to follow the jury's recommendation, which she quickly did, sentencing him to life in prison without parole. Unlike in most other states, in Florida the jury's role is advisory, and the state does not require that it be unanimous in voting for a death sentence. A majority of seven jurors is sufficient to recommend execution.

For over a week, jurors listened as prosecutors laid out their case against Ospina-Florez, who they said was solely responsible for the shooting deaths of Debra Rivera, 55, and her husband, retired physician Dr. Hector Rivera, 76, at their mansion in Avila.

On Tuesday, the 12-member jury pronounced him guilty of two counts of first-degree murder.

Since then, prosecutors and the public defenders representing him have debated his fate, presenting the jury with testimonials about his character designed to sway their vote and, ultimately, the judge's decision.

Prosecutors, emphasizing the significant amount of planning that went into the killings, and the fact that there was more than one victim, argued that Ospina-Florez should join the four other men Hillsborough judges have sent to death row since 2013.

They detailed how Debra Rivera had tried to flee from her attacker with such urgency that her shoes left skid marks on the kitchen's tile floor. Cornered in a bathroom by her "trusted driver," as prosecutors referred to Ospina-Florez, she was shot three times — twice in the mouth. Her husband was found lying dead in the driveway, where he had also been repeatedly shot.

"The evidence supports the imposition of the death penalty, the law allows for it, and simple justice cries out for it," said Assistant State Attorney Jay Pruner.

But jurors ultimately rejected this argument, aligning with defense attorneys who said that while the Rivera's deaths were tragic, the death penalty is for "the worst of the worst" offenders, and Ospina-Florez plainly did not meet that standard.

Referring to the state's own time line of events, defense attorneys said that his attack on the couple was quick — at most, 10 minutes — and that the Riveras had not died a prolonged and suffering death. They argued that Ospina-Florez was lacking many of the traits associated with people who commit heinous crimes worthy of the death penalty: he had no criminal record, no history of drug or alcohol abuse, and was not afflicted by mental illness.

"He's a nice guy," said Assistant Public Defender Theda James. "He doesn't have the history of someone who deserves to die."

Contact Anna M. Phillips at [email protected] or (813) 226-3354. Follow her @annamphillips.