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Posted January 25, 2006 by mattlawrence in Cuba Human Rights

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Posted on Wed, Jan. 25, 2006
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Two convicted Cuban immigrants were escorted into a federal courtroom Tuesday, fully expecting a judge to put them behind bars for six years for their roles in a smuggling operation that ended in tragedy.

They were wrong.

U.S. District Judge K. Michael Moore delayed his decision, saying six years was not enough punishment under federal sentencing guidelines because a young boy drowned in the Oct. 13 illegal crossing of the Florida Straits.

Moore said he will make up his mind next month on the fate of Alexander Gil Rodriguez, 25, and Luis Manuel Taboada-Cabrera, 28, whose relatives and friends cried outside the courtroom.

The two Miami men had reached quick plea deals in November on migrant smuggling offenses with federal prosecutors, who said they didn’t have enough evidence to charge them with the death of 6-year-old Julian Villasuso.

They pleaded guilty to smuggling 29 Cubans in a 33-foot speedboat that overturned and claimed the life of the boy, who got trapped beneath the capsized vessel after they tried to elude the U.S. Coast Guard.

The boy’s death was factored into the federal sentencing guidelines, doubling the prison term to six years.

But Moore, who as a federal judge has the authority to go higher than the guidelines, didn’t believe that penalty was sufficient.

‘‘The question is whether the guidelines adequately take into account the death they caused,’’ Moore said during Tuesday’s hearing.

Moore has greater leeway, thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court. In a decision issued last year, the high court ruled that federal sentencing guidelines are not mandatory. That means Rodriguez and Taboada-Cabrera could face far longer than six years in prison.

But imposing a stiffer sentence may not hold up on appeal.

Even the prosecutor, Assistant U.S. Attorney Dana Washington, reminded Moore of a similar South Florida smuggling case involving the death of a Cuban woman.

In that case, the judge sentenced the defendant to life in prison plus five years, overriding the federal sentencing guidelines that called for fewer than 13 years. The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta threw out the long prison term and ordered that the defendant be sentenced within the federal guidelines.

At Tuesday’s sentencing, attorney Steven Amster said his clients felt remorse for the boy’s death, which they viewed as a tragic accident.

‘‘I know the remorse they feel is strong and genuine,’’ Amster said of the tragic smuggling trip.

``It was not for profit. It was to bring their families over.’‘

The lawyer said Rodriguez had three family members, including his wife, aboard the speedboat, and that Taboada-Cabrera was supposed to bring his wife and a daughter on the voyage.

He said the two men have been helping the government go after the smuggling ringleaders.

Amster said he will need time to investigate whether the Coast Guard may have contributed to the capsizing of the men’s speedboat, which caused the boy’s death. ‘‘This was not anything I wanted to get into,’’ he said.

Coast Guard spokesman Luis R. Diaz strongly placed the blame on the two captains of the speedboat, saying ``we have nothing to hide.’‘

‘‘It appears that the suspected smugglers are the ones who caused this capsizing,’’ he said outside the courthouse.

The smuggling-conspiracy prosecution stems from an incident that occurred during the early morning of Oct. 13, when Coast Guard officials tracked down a Florida-registered speedboat, carrying the 29 Cubans, about 52 miles south of Key West.

According to court papers, the Coast Guard cutter Dauntless located the 33-foot Donzi fishing vessel, which was traveling without navigation lights.

The cutter launched an inflatable boat to intercept the speedboat, according to a criminal affidavit by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent Jeffrey Barber. The crew signaled to the vessel to stop, but it didn’t.

The chase continued, as the Coast Guard crew deployed an ‘‘entangling device’’—or net—in front of the speedboat. It tried to maneuver around the device. Finally, the vessel came to a stop.

Then, numerous people stood up on board and someone threw an object into the ocean, according to Barber.

‘‘Water immediately began to flow into the stern of the vessel, due to the shift in weight and the excess amount of individuals on board,’’ he said, causing the boat to capsize and the passengers to fall overboard.

Authorities discovered the boy beneath the boat after rescuers pulled to safety the other passengers, including the boy’s parents and the smugglers.

Julian’s parents and a third passenger with health problems were allowed into the United States. The rest were repatriated to Cuba.

Interim U.S. Attorney R. Alexander Acosta condemned the crime and similar illicit smuggling operations.
2006 MiamiHerald.com and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.

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