TAMPA — On the day after Mother’s Day, Tara Jones made her way to the witness stand and cast a glance at the defense table.
Jones hadn’t been this close to the man charged with shooting her 18-year-old son since a chance encounter at a Tampa grocery store a few years earlier. Soon after, Misael Mora was arrested and charged with murder in the death of Te’Sean Blue, who was gunned down in North Tampa on Labor Day 2018.
Now, on the opening day of Mora’s trial, Jones looked at him from across the courtroom and felt sick.
During opening statements, a prosecutor told jurors that Mora had confessed and an eyewitness would testify that he pulled the trigger. Mora faced up to life in prison. Jones figured justice would be done.
Two days later, Mora walked out of jail.
A jury rarely acquits a defendant in a case featuring a purported confession and an eyewitness, experts say, but that’s what happened.
“How could you admit to such a heinous crime and still walk?” Jones said.
The answer, jurors told the Tampa Bay Times, is a case plagued by a shaky confession, untrustworthy witnesses and a lack of other evidence to rule out reasonable doubt.
“That was troubling for us, not for our emotional feelings as parents or citizens, but for our obligations as stewards of justice,” said juror Yves Johnson. “It just didn’t meet that standard.”
Bama’s shooting, Mora’s arrest
Jones left Decatur, Ala., in 2016 with a mantra in mind: I’m not going to bury my son, and I’m not going to visit my son in prison.
A single mother, Jones had been living with Te’Sean in public housing. She moved to Tampa to be closer to family and to give her son, the youngest of three kids, a better life.
Mother and son settled into a two-bedroom Carrollwood apartment. Known by the nickname “Bama,” Blue spent a lot of time playing basketball in North Tampa and Sulphur Springs. He struggled at Chamberlain High School because of an attention deficit disorder and later enrolled in a GED program. His mother had served in the U.S. Army, and Blue was thinking about joining the military.
But on Sept. 3, 2018, he was riding his Schwinn mountain bike on Banyan Avenue near 13th Street when, authorities say, he encountered a group that included Mora. Blue stopped briefly to talk and pedaled away.
Someone started shooting. Blue rode a little farther south, turning onto Annie Street and then Brooks Street, where he collapsed. The Hillsborough medical examiner found a bullet entered his back and pierced his heart and a lung. A .380 caliber round was recovered from his chest muscle.
Detectives got a lead when ballistics tests of the shell casings showed the same gun had been used in two unrelated shootings. A teen named Enrique Lopez was linked to both cases. When questioned about Blue’s shooting, Lopez pointed the finger at Mora.
On Dec. 4, 2018, detectives Neal Smith and Detective Gary Sandel questioned Mora at police headquarters.
At the time, Mora was on probation after pleading guilty to charges of robbery and aggravated battery. Prosecutors said Mora, who was 16 at the time of the arrest, and a co-defendant beat an elderly man and stole his cell phone and watch. It was Mora’s only previous arrest. A judge placed him on two years of house arrest followed by four years of probation.
Smith and Sandel found photos of Mora posing with a gun and arrested him for a probation violation. They later added a charge of second-degree murder with a firearm for Blue’s shooting.
Smith called Jones to say they had arrested a man and had evidence they needed, including an admission, to charge him in her son’s death. They also shared a detail from the interrogation: Mora had waited on her at the Meat Depot supermarket.
‘Let me take it’
Mora, who was 19 when his trial began, didn’t have to take his chances with a jury.
Prosecutors offered him a plea deal of 20 years in prison followed by five years of probation, said Grayson Kamm, a spokesman for Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren’s office.
Mora’s rationale for rejecting the offer is unclear. Hillsborough Public Defender Julianne Holt, whose office represented Mora, declined to comment.
The Times was unable to reach Mora. No one answered the door when a reporter visited his last listed address, a duplex on East Annie Street a couple of blocks from the shooting scene, where he lived with his mother, Rhonda. No one responded to a note left on the door of the home, and Rhonda Mora did not respond to a voicemail message and text message. A manager at Meat Depot said Mora no longer works there.
His two-day trial began on May 10.
When Tara Jones took the stand as the state’s second witness, Assistant State Attorney Janae Thomas asked her about the encounter with Mora at Meat Depot on Nov. 29, 2018, nearly three months after the shooting.
Jones said she noticed Mora, as he prepared her order of ground beef, eyeing a photo of her son hanging around her neck. Jones asked Mora if he knew Blue. Mora said he’d seen him around. He asked Jones who Blue was to her.
“I said he’s my heart, he’s my son, he’s my baby boy,” Jones said.
When Mora asked what happened to him, she told him he was gunned down while riding his bike.
Jones paused on the stand, her voice breaking as she recalled what Mora said next: “I’m sorry about your loss, ma’am.”
Lopez, the state’s key witness, took the stand.
Thomas asked Lopez about his pending charge in an unrelated case, conspiracy to commit first-degree murder. Lopez said he had been subpoenaed to testify in Mora’s trial and that prosecutors had not made a deal with him for doing so.
Lopez testified that he, Mora and at least two others were walking down the street when Blue rode up. Lopez said he didn’t know Blue, so he didn’t talk to him. Mora spoke briefly to Blue. Lopez said he didn’t hear the exchange, but they didn’t appear to argue.
Blue rode away, then Lopez said he heard gunshots.
“I seen him shooting,” he said of Mora.
Lopez said Mora fired a .380 caliber pistol six or seven times. Lopez testified he’d seen Mora carry the gun before, and that when he saw Mora the next day, Mora handed him the pistol. Lopez said he threw it into the Hillsborough River.
Assistant Public Defender Maria Dunker asked Lopez if he remembered telling the detectives that it was Mora who took apart the gun and tossed it into the river. Lopez said he couldn’t recall.
Thomas then played the video of Mora’s interrogation.
The camera in the room was above Mora’s head, so his face is not visible for most of the two-hour interview. He mumbled many of his answers.
A transcript of the interrogation, available in court records, was not provided to the jury. Warren’s office told the Times that a video transcript is generally considered hearsay and inadmissible.
The detectives told Mora three people with him at the time of the shooting had pointed the finger at him. It was a lie: Only one person, Lopez, had said it was Mora. The others denied being there.
Mora told detectives he heard shots that night because he lives in the neighborhood but had nothing to do with the shooting. He said he didn’t know “Bama” well.
“Bama never did nothing to me,” he said, “and I’m not a killer.”
Mora said he didn’t want to snitch but didn’t want to be charged with the crime, either. He said he’d heard a rumor that he shot Blue because he was talking to a girl Mora had dated. Mora said he’d exchanged text messages with Blue, told him he could have the girl and broke up with her, so they could be together.
“That’s why I can say, I can tell you with a straight face there was no beef between us and I wish he was alive,” Mora said.
If the detectives leave the room knowing what happened, Sandel said, “it’s gonna be better on you no matter what the circumstance was.”
Nearly two hours into the interview, Mora changed his story.
He said the group left a barbecue at his mother’s house that night to fire guns “into the air” or “into the ground.” He said Blue rode up on his bike, briefly said hello and rode away.
“Did you see him in your line of fire?” Sandel asked. “Did you see him down when you were shooting? Or you didn’t notice?”
“I knew where, where he was riding,” Mora said. “I just didn’t look at it. And then I’m like, I must’ve not f--king aimed it.”
“Is that how that happened?” Sandel said. “You were just shooting a gun and it, it was in that direction?”
“Yeah, ‘cause like I said, I didn’t know he fell,” Mora replied. “I didn’t see him fall.”
A moment later, he said: “I’m a take it. Let me take it.” Smith would later testify that he took that to mean that Mora was taking the charge and taking responsibility for the shooting.
“Did you mean to shoot him?” Smith asked Mora.
“No,” he replied.
A jury impasse, then a verdict
On the trial’s second day, Jeanesky Joseph testified that Mora, his friend, called him on Labor Day from Lopez’s phone.
Joseph, 23, said Mora told him he’d used a .380 to shoot a boy who was riding his bike and needed Joseph to pick him up. Joseph said Mora told him it was “over a beef,” and he used the term “KOS” — a “kill on sight.” Joseph said no.
The jury learned through testimony that Joseph was Lopez’s co-defendant in the unrelated murder conspiracy case and, like Lopez, hadn’t made a deal with prosecutors to testify but hoped for a better outcome if he did.
Mora chose not to testify. Dunker did not call any witnesses.
During her closing argument, Dunker asked the jury to disregard Mora’s confession because he’d been pressured by detectives.
Ultimately, Dunker said, Mora decided not to point a finger at someone else and told them what he thought they wanted to hear. She said Mora and his family lived in a neighborhood “where maybe it means something to be a snitch.”
After a couple of hours of deliberating, the jury foreperson sent two questions to Circuit Judge Samantha Ward: Could they get a transcript of Mora’s interrogation, and was there a signed confession? Ward told them they had all of the available evidence.
After about seven hours, the jury sent Ward another note: We are at an impasse. Two had voted guilty, two not guilty and two jurors were undecided. Ward asked the jurors to try again and released them for the night.
Yves Johnson, a 56-year-old minister and faith-based professional development consultant, said jurors were shocked when the state rested.
“We thought there would be much more in terms of evidence,” Johnson said.
Jurors didn’t find Lopez or Joseph credible or convincing, Johnson said, and the jury couldn’t rule out that Lopez was the shooter.
That left Mora’s confession.
Johnson said jurors couldn’t understand much of what Mora was saying. When they were told a transcript wasn’t available, they watched the video a second time. It probably would have helped to see his facial expressions and more of his body language, Johnson said. Jurors also wondered if the detectives’ tactic of lying to Mora, a common interview technique, elicited untrue answers.
Johnson said he couldn’t rule out fear for his loved ones motivated Mora to take the charge.
“Was he saying yes because he was afraid of what people would do to his family,” Johnson said, “or did he actually do it?”
Jurors had the option to convict Mora of the lesser crime of manslaughter, but decided there was too much reasonable doubt. After deliberating about 12 hours, they delivered their verdict.
Johnson, a father of four, said most of the jurors were parents and wanted justice for Jones.
“We want you to have that closure and the peace of knowing what happened and bringing the killer to justice,” he said, “but we were duly sworn to go by a rigid set of rules.”
The Times reached another juror whose account aligned with Johnson’s.
After Judge Ward excused the jury, she ruled on his probation violation from the robbery case. She gave him a year of house arrest followed by two years of supervised probation.
Ward ordered him not to possess so much as a toy gun or “a rock in your pocket.” She asked if he understood.
“Yes, ma’am, I do,” Mora replied.
He was released from jail that evening.
It’s unclear why the video and audio of Mora’s interview came out so poorly or why the camera wasn’t focused on Mora. The Tampa Police Department released a statement in response to questions from the Times and a request to interview Detective Smith.
“We still feel strongly that we had the right person in this case,” the statement said.
Warren’s office provided a statement in response to questions from the Times. Protecting public safety, the statement said, requires prosecuting “tough cases.”
“When we step into court to fight for victims, we do it with the best evidence available to us, in the name of keeping our communities safe,” the statement said.
The public has come to expect high-quality video evidence, said John “Jack” Dale, a 29-year law enforcement veteran who most recently worked as a colonel at the Broward County Sheriff’s Office. He is now a consultant and expert witness.
“The reason for having video is to get a more accurate picture and give the jury a sense of (a suspect’s) body English and facial expressions in addition to their voice,” he said. “You want the video to capture those things.”
Joe Bodiford, a private criminal defense attorney and adjunct professor at Stetson University College of Law, said jurors have to gauge the credibility of witnesses and carefully evaluate statements cast as a confession. Bodiford, a former Hillsborough prosecutor, said what may seem like a strong case on its face might crumble under a jury’s scrutiny.
“Being a prosecutor is an incredibly tough job because they are presented with these types of dilemmas,” he said, “which turns into a dilemma that the jury is going to have to untie.”
‘My worst fear’
When the foreperson read the verdict, Jones felt like her heart stopped.
“I felt like not only did the justice system fail, as a parent I failed as well because as a parent, it’s your job to protect your kids,” she recalled recently as she sat on her living room couch.
Pictures of Blue, flashing a wide, gleaming smile, hang from nearly every wall of the apartment. His birthday and Christmas cards still sit on the desk in his bedroom, his Axe body spray and Kenneth Cole cologne lined on the dresser in a neat row.
Jones said she’s unconvinced by the juror comments to the Times, and that they let a guilty man go free. She doesn’t think a guilty verdict would have brought closure, but maybe assurance that another family won’t suffer like hers.
“My worst fear is another mother will be in the same predicament that I am in, trying to find her way, not even day by day, but second by second,” she said.
She plans to create a nonprofit charity in her son’s name that uses basketball, his passion, to fight gun violence. That way, she said, he’ll be more than a memory.