Kadel Piedrahita has been in jail for 1,608 days awaiting trial in the shooting death of cyclist Alex Palencia, who was gunned down on the Rickenbacker Causeway.
This past Tuesday, after 20 canceled trial dates, Circuit Court Judge Alberto Milian said he’d had enough.
He ordered Piedrahita to be present at the next hearing. The latest delay, like the ones before it, came even though 55 trial subpoenas had been issued for the case, including at least one to a Key Biscayne officer who responded to the shooting scene on Aug. 13, 2019.
The trial has been delayed for a mix of factors. The COVID-19 pandemic, which ground many proceedings to a halt, was an early source of delay. But there are more unusual factors, such as Piedrahita’s issues with his defense attorneys. Adding to the mix — handwritten letters from Piedrahita to the court.
In the latest letter obtained by the Key Biscayne Independent, Piedrahita said he was being held by a “corrupt system.”
“I am a victim,” he wrote Oct. 18. “I am exposing political and social manipulation of physical and circumstantial evidence.” The two-page letter appears to have been neatly written with a ruler. “I had to use my legal, registered gun to exercise my 2nd constitutional right to bear arms and protect my life.”
Palencia, 48, was shot in the stomach in full view of motorists on the busy bridge connecting Miami with its barrier islands. Parts of the confrontation were live-streamed by Piedrahita as he followed members of the cyclist group Don Pan Riders on a motorcycle.
Milian, who granted another delay, said it would be his last. He told both prosecutors and defense the case would go to trial in May.
“This will be the number one priority for us,” the judge said, pushing both sides to communicate on a plea offer, which a prosecutor said had not yet been formally made.
“He is potentially facing life in prison without parole,” the judge said.
Milian said he must hold a question-and-answer session with the defendant, known as a colloquy, to make sure that Piedrahita knows what he is risking if he proceeds to trial.
“You’re putting me in a bad position,” Milian told Assistant State Attorney Arvind Singh and Elsa Fernandez, a public defender.
“Because what will happen is, if Mr. Piedrahita goes to trial and he gets convicted, he is going to allege incompetent, ineffective assistance of counsel. That there was no back-and-forth about a realistic plea offer.”
Singh said he would work on offering a 25-year minimum mandatory sentence and Fernandez said she would bring it to her client.
Piedrahita has been a difficult defendant, said Ed Griffith, a spokesman for State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle. The main issue? The repeated change of defense attorney, which means each new lawyer has to come up to speed.
One of Piedrahita’s lawyers – there have been at least five — left the case after the defendant accused Milian of being unfair, which Milian treated as a motion for recusal (which he denied).
“There’s little we can do,” Griffith said of the delays.
Could Piedrahita defend himself? It’s happened in other cases.
The most famous “pro se” defendant in Florida was serial killer Ted Bundy, who had multiple defense attorneys before his 1979 nationally televised trial. He was executed a decade later.
Piedhrahita, charged with second-degree murder, does not face the death penalty. He remains held without bond at the Metro West Detention Center bordering the Everglades.
Tony Winton is the editor-in-chief of the Key Biscayne Independent and president of Miami Fourth Estate, Inc. He worked previously at The Associated Press for three decades winning multiple Edward R. Murrow awards. He was president of the News Media Guild, a journalism union, for 10 years. Born in Chicago, he is a graduate of Columbia University. His interests are photography and technology, sailing, cooking, and science fiction.