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Murderer's life sentence reduced to 27 years

An appeals court had reduced her first-degree murder conviction to second-degree, saying prosecutors failed to prove premeditation.

By GRAHAM BRINK

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 17, 2000


TAMPA -- Convicted murderer Marie Elena Rivera came to court Monday hoping for a reduced sentence.

Her wish came true, but it was measured relief. Instead of life, Rivera now faces 27 years behind bars.

Rivera, 30, has professed her innocence since her live-in boyfriend Ralph Deeter was shot in the back of the head as he slept in his trailer at Ralph's Auto Salvage and Auto Sales in Gibsonton in 1997. During the trial, Rivera's attorney argued that the evidence of premeditation was too skimpy to merit a first-degree murder conviction.

A jury, however, found Rivera guilty of first-degree murder, and the judge sentenced her to life.

But earlier this year, an appeals court reduced Rivera's first-degree murder conviction to second-degree murder. The court found that prosecutors indeed failed to show that Rivera had the premeditation required of a first-degree murder.

The state can use circumstantial evidence to prove premeditation, the court said. But the state failed to exclude a reasonable hypothesis that the homicide occurred other than by premeditation, which Rivera's attorney had argued.

On Monday, Rivera told the judge that she had completed a number of classes and was a model prisoner. She again said she had no role in Deeter's killing, sticking with her claim that an intruder forced his way into the mobile home.

Prosecutor Jay Pruner argued at trial that Rivera and Deeter, 50, argued several hours before the shooting. There was no evidence of an intruder and Deeter was found, in bed, under the covers, with his arm near his head as if he had been asleep. Rivera also had traces of gunshot residue on her hand.

Pruner told the judge Monday that Rivera had shown no remorse and asked for a tough sentence.

"This was an absolutely senseless crime," Pruner said.

After the sentencing, Rivera clutched her 10-year-old son in a long embrace. Wiping away tears, she then hugged other family and friends gathered in court to show support.

The resentencing left Deeter's family and friends asking how the system had broken down.

"You cannot shoot a man in the back of the head while he's sleeping and say you didn't plan it out," said Roy Welch, Deeter's stepson. "I feel that this is an injustice."

- Graham Brink can be reached at (813) 226-3365 or brink@sptimes.com.

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