As she prepared to come to court Tuesday morning, Marie Joseph made sure she put on the silky pink long-sleeved blouse her son Jefty liked the best. She told a Palm Beach County jury that she wanted him to see it and remember he had a home, and people who love him.
No matter what prison they send him to in Florida for the 2013 murder of Gustavo Falsetti Cabral, Marie Joseph said she’d move there. And if they’d let her visit her son every day, she would, no matter what it took.
All she wanted, she told the jury, was for them to spare her son from a possible death sentence. By the time she sat down on the witness stand to testify on his behalf, she calmly told them that she knew they would “help” her and come back with a life verdict.
The 12-member panel took less than 15 minutes to confirm her feelings.
Instead of the death sentence prosecutors sought, Circuit Judge John Kastrenakes sentenced Joseph to three consecutive life sentences on first-degree murder, robbery and kidnapping charges based on jurors’ life in prison recommendation. The sentence closed part of the more than four-year quest for justice from the family of the 31-year-old Brazil native, who prosecutors say Joseph, along with Ilmart Christophe and Koral Ben Shimon, abducted after Cabral answered Ben Shimon’s escort ad on Backpage.com.
In a move that perhaps foreshadowed the outcome of Tuesday’s hearing, jurors who convicted Joseph of first-degree murder earlier this month also concluded in their verdict that he did not possess a gun during the killing — pointing by default to Christophe as the one who fatally shot Cabral in the attic of an abandoned house after hours of driving him around to ATM machines in an attempt to drain his accounts.
“My son was in the wrong place, at the wrong time,” Marie Joseph told jurors Tuesday. “Whatever happened, this is not my son.”
Both Joseph’s parents, his grandmother, siblings and a pair of friends testified in his defense, describing him as an introverted but intelligent young man with a sense of humor and voracious appetite for food and debate on world events.
As much as Joseph’s family loved him, Cabral’s family wanted jurors to know that he had people who loved him, too. Cabral’s widow, Christiane Rezende, cried on the witness stand as she told jurors how her husband’s death affected their 10-year-old son, Felipe, and their 7-year-old daughter, Manuela.
Their youngest was three when her father was killed. Rezende said the girl asks her to see her father’s photos every day so she can try to memorize the face she will never see again in life. Her brother is in counseling and suffers from anxiety attacks and a deep fear of being alone even for a short period of time ever since his father’s sudden death.
“He used to do everything with the kids. I think he was even better with them than me. He was the best father I’ve ever seen,” Rezende told jurors.
The wounds of his loss run as deep as they did more than four years ago, when Rezende learned just three days before she was to return to the U.S. to join her husband in Fort Lauderdale that he’d been killed.
She said the family cremated his body. Ever since her husband’s death, Rezende says her mother-in-law — once an active, vibrant executive in Brazil — mostly stays home in bed now, has let her hair turn gray and has little desire to do the things she used to enjoy.
Cabral’s father in a heartfelt letter to jurors said one of the hardest things about losing his son is having to look at his grandchildren when they ask him if he can bring their father back. He described Cabral as a loving son, who even as an adult would hug and kiss his parents whenever he saw them the same way he did when he was 10.
In her closing arguments to jurors, Assistant State Attorney Aleathea McRoberts asked them to consider the horror and cruelty that marked the last hours of Cabral’s life.
McRoberts, who handled the case with fellow prosecutor Terri Skiles, tackled head-first the parallel between Cabral’s move from Brazil for a better life in 2012 and Marie Joseph’s flight to America from her native Haiti 30 years ago in search of the same thing.
Marie Joseph’s story was commendable, McRoberts said, and the fact that daughter Keisha Joseph Nimchan holds several college degrees is an example of what Jefty Joseph should have done to continue his family’s proud legacy.
“What did he do with their American Dream? He spit on it,” McRoberts said, telling jurors it was not their responsibility to right Joseph’s wrongs by sparing him a death sentence.
Defense attorney Robert Gershman told jurors that the words of Joseph’s relatives were more convincing than anything he could tell them to convince them to spare Joseph’s life, but he pointed to several factors he said they should consider in their decision.
First, he said, the fact that Ben Shimon received just 10 years in prison in exchange for her testimony against the two men should make them think twice about sentencing Joseph to die, especially since they decided with their verdict that prosecutors couldn’t prove he was the shooter. Defense attorney Scott Skier had argued to jurors during the trial that Joseph was a drug dealer who presumably met Cabral with Ben Shimon and Christophe hoping to sell him drugs.
Gershman also presented medical records detailing a prior incident where Joseph was shot eight times in a case of mistaken identity, telling jurors that four bullets remained lodged in the 24-year-old’s body and he still suffers post-traumatic stress disorder from the incident.
While McRoberts asked jurors to focus on the horror on Cabral’s final moments and the pain his death left behind, Gershman said it had to say something about Joseph that his entire family, friends and church members would show up for him even after he was convicted of murder. A friend who testified on his behalf told jurors he sends Joseph books in jail and looks forward to his analysis regularly.
“Love counts, giving love, receiving love. It counts,” Gershman said, urging jurors to have mercy on Joseph and later adding: “If you sentence him to life in prison, he will have the rest of his life to sit in that cell and make peace with the hardships he’s created.”
In the end, the jury with its emphatic life recommendation concluded that while Joseph had been convicted of the murder during the commission of a felony, he was not guilty of acting with cold, calculated premeditation and did not commit the crime in a heinous, atrocious or cruel manner, aggravating factors necessary for a death sentence.
Kastrenakes opted to sentence Joseph right away, and in a rare move, jurors requested to stay in the courtroom for the sentencing.
When it was his turn to speak, Joseph reiterated claims he made during an angry outburst directed at Kastrenakes after jurors convicted him earlier this month.
“I just want it on record that I feel that I didn’t have a fair trial at all, and I feel that you favored the state on many occasions, and that’s about it,” Joseph told the judge.
Kastrenakes disagreed, and brought the focus back to Cabral, who Kastrenakes said Joseph abducted and terrorized in the last hours of his life.
“He was treated with much less respect than I’m about to give you with this sentence,” Kastrenakes said.
Joseph’s family afterward said they plan to appeal his guilty verdict. In the three local cases prosecutors have taken to trial since Florida lawmakers revamped the state’s death penalty system, two juries quickly have returned life in prison verdicts and a third jury opted out of a penalty phase altogether by convicting on a lesser second-degree murder charge.