DADE CITY — Jathniel McMichael rode his bike along C Avenue in Zephyrhills one evening about three years ago. It was past sundown and he didn't have a light on his bike. A police officer stopped him.
The encounter set off a chain of events. McMichael was found to have a small bag of marijuana in his pocket and arrested on possession charges. The next day, as he got ready to leave the jail after a judge signed his release, he agreed to talk to two sheriff's detectives in an interview room. And that meeting, which was videotaped, resulted in McMichael confessing to participating in the brutal rapes of two elderly women in Zephyrhills weeks earlier.
In court Tuesday, his attorney tried to persuade a judge to throw out the confession, arguing that the arrest that led to it was unlawful and the interview with the detectives took place when McMichael was in a sort of inmate purgatory: He had been released from jail on his own recognizance but was still confined inside the walls of the lockup, still wearing a blue prison jumpsuit.
McMichael testified that he thought he had to talk to them before he could go home.
But Circuit Judge Pat Siracusa ruled that McMichael's release status didn't matter because he had agreed to waive his right to an attorney and talked to the detectives voluntarily.
What's more, the judge found, those detectives had learned of McMichael from another defendant in the cases, and based on that, they had enough reason to arrest him, confession or no confession.
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The first victim , 66, was attacked in her mobile home in March 2007 by two men in masks. They rifled through her belongings, threatened her with a knife, and before they left, took turns raping her.
Three weeks later, a 68-year-old woman in another mobile home park was awakened by two men barging in. They punched her when she tried to call 911. They put her in her minivan and drove to her bank, where they took cash from an ATM. Along the way, one of them raped her. Finally, they drove her to a water-filled quarry, threw her in and pushed her van in after her.
Authorities scoured the area and eventually arrested three men: McMichael and friends Andre Brathwaite and Bobby Lee Black III.
Brathwaite, authorities say, did not participate in the rapes but drove the car to the first woman's house and waited outside. Brathwaite led detectives to the other two.
Black, 22, went to trial in each case last year, was convicted and given six life sentences. Prosecutors used DNA evidence and Brathwaite's testimony to seal the convictions.
But there is no DNA evidence against McMichael. His videotaped confession is the state's best evidence.
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Prosecutor Manny Garcia said McMichael "confessed his involvement" in both rapes to the two detectives, and again with another detective who interviewed him a day later about the first rape.
"There is no official misconduct on the part of the Pasco County Sheriff's Office," Garcia said in defending the interviews. "They did everything that was expected of them. They read the defendant Miranda rights. He voluntarily agreed to speak to them."
But McMichael, 21, took the stand in Tuesday's hearing and said he thought he had to talk to the detectives in order to get out of jail. He was in the booking area — the last stop before inmates are released — when they approached him.
"(They) made me believe that I wouldn't be going home if I didn't make these statements," he said. "I asked them, 'will you give me a ride home because I have no ride back to Zephyrhills,' and they stated yes."
Siracusa questioned Scott Davis, McMichael's attorney, about why it mattered where the interview happened. The detectives already had identified him as a possible suspect and would have sought to question him wherever he was.
Davis said the difference was McMichael's state of mind while in custody.
"In the Land O'Lakes Jail, he's an inmate. He's not free to leave," Davis said. "He didn't feel like he could tell them no because he's an inmate."
Now, with the confession remaining in evidence, McMichael is set to face trial in the first rape next week. He faces a possible life sentence if convicted.
Molly Moorhead can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6245.