Testing to be conducted on shower curtain rod
In a hearing Monday afternoon, Circuit Judge Jonathan Sjostrom postponed until the middle of June the murder trial of two defendants accused of bludgeoning to death a South Florida woman nearly five years ago at an Eastpoint motel.
In granting a motion for a continuance filed by attorneys for Christina Araujo, 43, of Loxahatchee, Sjostrom agreed to move the starting date of the trial from Feb. 15 to run from Wednesday, June 14 through Friday, June 30.
Araujo is a co-defendant with Zachary Abell, 35, of North Miami Beach, with the pair accused of killing Aileen Seiden, 31, at the Sportsman’s Lodge on April 23, 2018, and then dumping her lifeless body in a cul-de-sac at a vacant subdivision off U.S. 98, before hurrying back to Miami where they were later apprehended.
On Jan. 27, Araujo’s West Palm Beach attorney Scott Richardson filed a motion for the continuance, arguing that “material exculpatory evidence” in the form of both witness testimony and physical evidence surfaced earlier in the month and could not be evaluated before the Feb. 15 trial date.
Assistant State Attorney Jarred Patterson did not oppose the motion, while Abell’s lawyer, Tallahassee criminal defense attorney Robert Morris, voiced objection to the continuance but did not file a motion in opposition.
“We’re not joining in the motion,” Morris said. “My client wishes to proceed with trial.”
On Dec. 22 Richardson also filed a motion to dismiss all three of the felony counts – first-degree murder, accessory after the fact and tampering with physical evidence – against his client, but Sjostrom has yet to rule on that.
The judge asked Patterson to elaborate on what had prompted Richardson to seek a continuance.
“I received a call a couple weeks ago from an Franklin County Sheriff’s Office investigator who had been told about a recorded call from jail that contained information that could not have been known by (others),” Patterson said. “A female in her cell had talked to Araujo, and gave her information that could only have come from someone with knowledge of the case.”
Patterson said the Florida Department of Law Enforcement followed up on the matter by interviewing people at the jail. That led investigators to an item that had been in evidence from the original crime scene search.
“It was another thing in the room that has blood on it,” Patterson said, “It’s a potential weapon, but has not been tested.”
He said the item contained a reddish-brown stain. “It was swabbed, to see whether or not DNA is present,” Patterson said. “But that is unknown at this time.”
Patterson went on to tell Sjostrom that this potential DNA evidence may be exculpatory.
“We know it’s there, we just don’t know what it shows,” he said, adding that without further testing, no determination can be made whether it’s exculpatory or inculpatory, and to which defendant such findings, if any, would have an effect.
Patterson went on to tell the judge the item in question is a shower curtain rod that “potentially was used as a weapon during the course of this.” He said the curtain rod remains in the custody of the sheriff’s office, and could be submitted to an FDLE lab for further testing within the next day or so.
An additional complication was that the judge was made aware that several witnesses inside of the jail need to be identified.
“Two additional witnesses have already been interviewed. One said ‘Well, this was told to another group of individuals,’” Patterson said. “We’re trying to identify and track them down.”
He said the possible witnesses to statements made by Araujo during a recorded call were locals. “We are pulling the jail records from when this occurred, to see who was in the dorm at the time and nail down who these individuals might be,” Patterson said. ‘The statement so far has been inculpatory to one defendant, and there are other statements that could also be inculpatory.”
The assistant state attorney said it is too soon to say whether what is now a joint trial of Araujo and Abell would need to be split into two separate court proceedings.
“I can’t say it is something that bears on a strategy that requires severance,” Patterson said.
Morris also told Sjostrom of another issue that could delay the trial from its original date in February. He said he had subpoenaed a Dr. Sutherland in South Florida but that his medical staff said he was to perform a surgery during the week of the trial in February and would not be available.
Richardson said at least six or seven identifiable witnesses to the alleged statements in jail would need to be deposed. He also said he might expand the testing beyond FDLE.
The attorney said he could not determine how much time he would need to address this latest evidence. “It depends on how long it takes to get that (the testing) done and get depositions done,” Richardson said.
Sjostrom decided to hold the next case management hearing on Wednesday afternoon, Feb. 15.
“I know you’re all as frustrated as I am, more so,” said the judge. “But all good things must come to an end, including this litigation.”