Justified force? Miami jurors see video of Mexican actor’s fatal punch against motorist

The general facts are undisputed: Juan Ricardo Hernandez, upset about being cut off by a SUV in traffic, got out of his car at a Miami intersection. As both cars idled at a stoplight, Hernandez walked up to that SUV — a passenger inside happened to be a Mexican telenovela actor named Pablo Lyle.

Moments later, Lyle threw a punch that left Hernandez laying on the ground, his skull fractured from hitting the road. He would never wake up.

Everything that happened in between, Miami jurors heard on Friday, will be up to their interpretation. They’ll have to decide whether Lyle, the 35-year-old actor who had been visiting Miami on vacation, was justified in throwing that one, ultimately fatal punch.

Prosecutors cast Hernandez as simply tapping on the window to “voice his discontent,” then walking back to his own car after the SUV’s driver got out to argue. Lyle, the passenger, angrily charged at Hernandez, who “turns around and puts his hands up,” prosecutor Shawn Abuhoff told jurors.

“This defendant makes another decision, the evidence will show, that he’s going to cause harm,” Abuhoff said during opening statements of Lyle’s long-anticipated trial for manslaughter. “He is going to strike Mr. Hernandez in the face because he blames Mr. Hernandez for this situation. He uses deadly force.”

Miami, Florida, September 23, 2022 - Pablo Lyle, left, talks to his attorney Bruce Lehr, right, on the first day of his criminal trial in Miami-Dade Criminal court. Pablo Lyle is accused of killing 63-year-old Juan Ricardo Hernandez during a road rage incident in 2019.Alejandro Sola
Miami, Florida, September 23, 2022 - Pablo Lyle, left, talks to his attorney Bruce Lehr, right, on the first day of his criminal trial in Miami-Dade Criminal court. Pablo Lyle is accused of killing 63-year-old Juan Ricardo Hernandez during a road rage incident in 2019.Alejandro Sola

But Lyle’s defense cast Hernandez as unreasonable and unhinged, “banging” on the window and cursing, and “apparently” trying to get inside the SUV. Attorney Bruce Lehr told jurors that Lyle was terrified, not knowing if Hernandez was going back to his car to somehow escalate the violence.

“Mr. Lyle instinctively, without any intent or thought, hit him once,” Lehr told jurors. “He hit him with his weak hand. He hit him one time and the man went down.”

Long-awaited trial

Lawyers made their opening pitch to jurors more than three years after Lyle was first arrested for charging and throwing the punch that ultimately killed Hernandez — a case that has been scrutinized by media across the United States and Latin America.

The confrontation on a roadway near Miami International Airport was also captured on video surveillance from a nearby gas station, footage that has been shown repeatedly on social media, plus U.S. and Mexican news networks.

The tragedy might have gone under the radar if not for the fame of Lyle, who had been ascending as an actor in Mexico, landing in starring roles in several telenovelas on Mexico’s Televisa network. He’d also landed another leading role in “Yankee,” a crime drama that debuted on Netflix shortly after his arrest.

READ MORE: Mexican actor killed Cuban man. Cultural, class divide raise concerns in a Miami trial

But the road-rage confrontation upended his career, and claimed the life of Hernandez, who worked loading food trays on airplane carts at Miami International Airport and was supposed to get married the day afterward.

Jurors will be asked to determine whether Lyle was justified, or acted in self-defense, in attacking Hernandez that fateful day.

For prosecutors, the challenge is complicated by Florida’s controversial Stand Your Ground self-defense law, which in 2005 eliminated a citizen’s “duty to retreat” before using force to counter a threat. (The law also made it easier for judges to throw out cases they deem were acts of self-defense; Lyle lost his “immunity” bid in 2019).

The incident unfolded on the evening of March 31, 2019, when Lyle’s brother-in-law was driving the actor and his family to the airport, for their return flight to Mexico. The brother-in-law, Lucas Delfino, an architect who lives in Miami, cut off Hernandez in traffic after mistakenly getting off on Northwest 27th Avenue.

Abuhoff, the prosecutors, told jurors that Hernandez had to slam on his brakes to avoid getting hit. At the intersection, Hernandez got out, tapped on the window and asked if he was “crazy” and “stupid” for cutting him off.

The state played the video for jurors.

“He doesn’t come up to that door and try and rip open that door.He doesn’t come up and try and break the window,” Abuhoff said. “He doesn’t say, I’m going to kill you.’ He doesn’t have any weapons in his hands.”

Delfino got out and began arguing with Hernandez, who put his hands up to make sure he didn’t get hit, the prosecutor said. It was at that moment that the SUV began rolling forward toward the intersection — Delfino had forgot to put the car in park.

When Delfino noticed the SUV was rolling, he dashed back to the driver’s seat. At that point, the 6-foot Lyle had gotten out and ran toward the much smaller and older Hernandez, who had already walked back toward his own car.

“He immediately knocks out Mr. Hernandez and as a result, Mr. Hernandez smacks his head on the concrete and never wakes up,” Abuhoff said.

Lyle and Delfino got back into the SUV and fled. Police later caught up with Lyle at Miami International Airport. He was initially charged with battery, a charge that was upgraded to manslaughter after Hernandez died days later in the hospital.

The defense’s version of events depicted Hernandez as the aggressor.

The three young children inside the SUV became “hysterical” when Hernandez began banging on the window, Lehr told jurors. He claimed that Hernandez “battered” Delfino when he got out of the SUV.

Miami, Florida, September 23, 2022 - Pablo Lyle sits in the courtroom on the first day of his criminal trial in Miami-Dade Criminal court. Pablo Lyle is accused of killing 63-year-old Juan Ricardo Hernandez during a road rage incident in 2019.
Miami, Florida, September 23, 2022 - Pablo Lyle sits in the courtroom on the first day of his criminal trial in Miami-Dade Criminal court. Pablo Lyle is accused of killing 63-year-old Juan Ricardo Hernandez during a road rage incident in 2019.

“The evidence shows clearly the violence is growing,” Lehr said.

And the only reason Lyle got out of the SUV was to try and keep the vehicle from rolling into the intersection, imperiling the family in the car. “A reasonable person would have feared why Mr. Hernandez was going back to his vehicle,” Lehr said. “Pablo Lyle runs over to him yelling, with some obscenity, that there are children in the car.”

The trial is expected to last about five days before Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Marisa Tinkler Mendez. Lyle faces up to 15 years in prison if he is convicted.