Man convicted in the killing of Coral Gables officer in 1972 gets new sentencing hearing

 
 
BY DAVID OVALLE
 
 

Forty-five years ago, Coral Gables Police Officer Robert DeKorte rushed to a robbery at the Happiness Boys Liquor Store, only to be shot in the throat during a gunfight.

Another officer shot and killed the gunman who fired the bullet that killed DeKorte. A second robber, 17-year-old Raymond Bradley, escaped but was soon discovered, wearing women’s clothes, hiding in the closet of a nearby apartment.

Decades have faded the memory of DeKorte’s slaying. But details about the officer and his convicted killer might soon return to the courts as a Miami-Dade judge — because the killer was a juvenile at the time — has agreed to hold a new sentencing hearing for Bradley, who pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and was sentenced to life in prison back in 1972.

Prosecutors plan to appeal the judge’s decision made after a series of state and U.S. Supreme Court rulings that opened the door for hundreds of new sentencing hearings for Florida juvenile killers sent to prison for life.

The continued battle underscores that the law dictating juvenile sentencing in Florida is far from settled. Higher courts have not completely ironed out exactly which minors convicted of major crimes deserve a new shot at freedom.

Bradley’s is the oldest such case to be slated for a new sentencing in Miami-Dade County. Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Miguel de la O earlier this month threw out his sentence. If and when a hearing is held, the judge will consider evidence documenting the man’s upbringing as a child, as well as his decades behind bars.

DeKorte’s son, Robert DeKorte Jr., said he is glad the state is appealing because Bradley deserves to stay in prison. The younger DeKorte began to tear up when recalling the heartache each time he and his family attend parole hearings for Bradley.

“I’ll never forgive him,” said Robert DeKorte Jr., now 62, of Seminole. “There are seven grandchildren that never got to meet their grandfather, never got to get or give Christmas gifts or birthday gifts.”

Bradley’s chance for freedom was prompted by two U.S. Supreme Court rulings that shook up how Florida treats juveniles convicted of major crimes.

In the 2010 case Graham v. Florida, the nation’s high court outright banned life sentences for juveniles in non-homicide cases, saying they amounted to “cruel and unusual” punishment. Justices said science shows that youthful brains are not fully developed, and they are more susceptible to impulses and outside influences.

Two years later, in Miller v. Alabama, the court banned mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole for juveniles convicted of murder. The ruling still left room for life sentences for the most egregious of murderers — but ordered judges to first hear evidence of a killer’s childhood and upbringing.

The Florida Supreme Court later ruled that most juvenile killers, no matter when they were convicted, should get new sentences under a new Florida law that allowed for a judge to consider possible release after 15, or 25 years, depending on their role in the crime.

Then last year, in Atwell v. State, the state’s high court dramatically expanded the number of juveniles eligible for release. Justices ruled that juveniles who had been convicted of murders back when Florida still had a parole system nevertheless deserve new sentences.

That ruling paved the way for Bradley, who has been eligible for but never granted parole for years, to get a new sentencing hearing.

Prosecutors must first appeal to the Third District Court of Appeals, which might be a tough sell. Earlier this month, the court ruled that a Miami man named Freddy Brown deserved a new sentencing hearing for a 1980 murder. Like Bradley, he pleaded guilty and had also been eligible for parole.

In appealing the judge’s ruling, the state will argue that unlike the defendant in the Atwell case, Bradley is not stuck in a “defacto life sentence” because he has been given possible dates for potential release several times over the decades, according to state filings in the case.

Bradley’s attorney, Assistant Miami-Dade Public Defender Gale Lewis, disagrees.

“All the recent case law shows that Mr. Bradley deserves a chance at freedom,” Lewis said.

As for DeKorte, he was 46 when he died, a veteran of the small police department who grew up in New Jersey and began his working career as an auto parts dealer. 

A father of three, DeKorte became a Gables officer in 1953 and was well-known in the neighborhoods. He often fed pets for residents who left town for vacation. On weekends, DeKorte flew to Michigan to haul down cars on a a carry-all truck, and also worked security at a bus station.

In 1966, DeKorte was honored as officer of the year after helping foil a bank robbery. He had a penchant for trying to bust up crimes by himself, something that earned him a caution from the police chief.

That bravado led him to the Happiness Boys liquor store Jan. 21, 1972.

Bradley and 21-year-old Walter Garfield Sanders burst into the store, at 238 S. Dixie Highway, which today is a green space across from a lot belonging to a luxury car dealership. The pair pistol whipped a clerk and the store’s owner while raiding the cash register. 

The call to police was triggered by a silent alarm. DeKorte, who had just visited his wife at her bank job, heard the dispatcher and rushed to the liquor store. Witnesses told police that DeKorte burst in, but did not have his sidearm fully drawn.

Bradley, then 17, shot at DeKorte with a 22-caliber pistol, hitting him in the arm. His lawyers later claimed the gun went off by accident.

But the fatal shot was fired by Sanders. The bullet pierced the officer’s neck, lodging in his lung. Another police officer arrived moments later and chased Sanders, shooting and killing him.

DeKorte stumbled to his car, tried to drive off to a hospital but rolled to a stop near a palm tree. He was pronounced dead at Doctors Hospital, just three blocks from the liquor store. 

An anonymous tip led investigators to a nearby apartment, where Bradley was found hiding in a closet dressed in women’s clothing. 

DeKorte knew both young men from working security at Coral Gables High basketball games, the slain officer’s son said.

Sanders, the robber killed by police, was on probation at the time for burglary. Bradley, of Coconut Grove, was charged with armed robbery and murder and faced the death penalty.

Under Florida law, then as now, anyone who participates in an armed robbery in which someone dies can be found guilty of felony murder.

Today, murder cases in Miami-Dade criminal court normally drag on for years. But in 1972, justice moved fast. Within five months, Bradley pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and was sentenced to life in prison in exchange for a waiver of the death penalty.

In court hearings, his attorneys described Bradley as a “virtually illiterate, mentally defective moron” who had come under the influence of his older cohort. As a child, he had several run-ins with the law, and became a heroin addict as a teenager.

“He was probably close to being intellectually disabled. He was certainly educationally disabled,” said Miami lawyer Jack Blumenfeld, one of the case’s original prosecutors who witnessed Bradley initialing his typed confession. “I remember being shocked that he had gone through eight years of school and was functionally illiterate.”

During the first few decades of his time in prison, Bradley racked up dozens of disciplinary reports, including theft, possession of a weapon and use of drugs. However, since April 1997, Bradley has not recorded any disciplinary reports, according to court documents submitted by his defense.

Bradley did well enough to be moved to a “minimum custody” work camp in the early 2000s. 

But he has since been returned to regular prison population. And the parole commission, saying that Bradley “still posed a risk to society,” suspended his “presumptive parole release date” of June 21, 2007.

Since then, over a decade, Bradley has not been given a new potential release date. It is unclear why.

Noting the tragedy of the police officer’s death, Blumenfeld said he was surprised to learn recently that Bradley was still in prison.

“Back in those days, life did not mean life like it does now,” Blumenfeld said. “There were guys who would get out in 10, 15 years. I’m shocked he spent 45 years in prison based on the standards of those days.”


Officer Robert DeKorte (RIP)
 
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