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

·9 min read

On the surface, the story could be ripped from a telenovela: A wealthy, handsome son of privilege faces justice after killing a poor working man on the street.

The real-life story, however, is messier than fiction. Miami jurors, not scriptwriters, will write the ending.

This week marks the start of trial for Mexican actor Pablo Lyle, who is accused of manslaughter for the death of 63-year-old Juan Ricardo Hernandez in Miami. In circuit court, the jury will decide a relatively straightforward case, whether Lyle broke the law when he delivered one ultimately fatal punch at Hernandez during a road-rage confrontation three years ago.

But as lawyers worked to select a jury, they weighed all the complications of Miami itself: the reach of Spanish-language media coverage, divisions between rich and poor, and tensions between Hispanic groups over a Mexican actor who killed a Cuban man in a county dominated by Cuban Americans.

“Ethnicity always comes up. Members of the defense have heard it throughout the community over the years — that Mexican, and they say it in a nasty way — punched that Cuban. This really concerns me,” Miami defense attorney Philip Reizenstein told the judge on Tuesday as lawyers began questioning potential jurors.

On Wednesday evening, after two days of questioning potential jurors, lawyers selected a six-person jury.

Judge Marisa Tinkler Mendez speaks to defense and prosecuting attorneys during pretrial motions on Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2022, the first day of jury selection in Miami-Dade Criminal Court. Mexican actor Pablo Lyle is accused of killing a motorist in a road-rage incident.
Judge Marisa Tinkler Mendez speaks to defense and prosecuting attorneys during pretrial motions on Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2022, the first day of jury selection in Miami-Dade Criminal Court. Mexican actor Pablo Lyle is accused of killing a motorist in a road-rage incident.

Opening arguments will take place on Friday, with testimony lasting about five days. The 35-year-old Lyle faces up to 15 years in prison if convicted.

Different stories

Lyle and Hernandez hailed from vastly different backgrounds.

The jury will meet Lyle, a good-looking 35-year-old actor originally from Mazatlan, Mexico. He’d starred in several major Televisa shows, including “La Sombra del Pasado,” or “The Shadow of the Past,” and “Mi Adorable Maldición,” or “My Adorable Curse” (which once included American comedian Conan O’Brien in a guest role alongside Lyle).

He also landed a leading role in a Netflix crime drama, “Yankee.” Lyle, a father of two who normally lives in Mexico City, was also named one of People en Español’s 50 most beautiful people in 2015.

“I am concerned about the perception of Pablo as wealthy and privileged. He’s not. In Mexico, maybe he’s middle class, but he’s not wealthy,” Reizenstein told the Herald. “He hadn’t broken out yet. And for the past two years, he’s been destitute, living on the largess of family and friends.”

Mexican actors Dulce María and Pablo Lyle, the stars of Mexican Televisa telenovela “Verano de Amor,” which aired in 2009.
Mexican actors Dulce María and Pablo Lyle, the stars of Mexican Televisa telenovela “Verano de Amor,” which aired in 2009.

Lyle wasn’t exactly a household name, even in his native country.

“If you ask in Mexico, more people know about Pablo Lyle because of his case, because he hit a Cuban man in Miami,” said Omar Argueta, a celebrity reporter for Imagen Televisión, a Mexican broadcast network.

The other character in the fateful and fatal encounter is Hernandez, who hailed from Boyeros, Cuba, a borough of Havana, where he worked warehouse jobs most of his life. His journey was like so many others in Miami: He emigrated in 2011, getting a job at Miami International Airport loading food trays in carts for airliners, and later brought his adult son from Cuba.

Hernandez supported his elderly mother by sending money to Cuba weekly.

“He came out here to Miami really to have a better way of life, so he could support his mother,” said his family’s attorney, Zena Duncan, adding: “He was very much of a man rich in personality and love. He was a big presence in the room. You couldn’t be at a party and not know him.”

Hernadnez lived in Miami’s blue-collar Flagami neighborhood, not far from Miami’s airport, with his fiancée, Mercedes Arce. They met working at MIA. The two planned to wed the day after he was mortally injured, with the reception at a local park.

That fatal day

Their lives intersected on March 31, 2019, the final day of Lyle’s 10-day vacation in Miami. His brother-in-law, Lucas Delfino, was driving the actor and his family to the airport.

Delfino, an architect who lives in Miami, cut off Hernandez in traffic after mistakenly getting off on the wrong exit. At a stoplight, Hernandez got out and angrily banged on the driver’s window of the maroon SUV. Delfino got out of the stopped SUV and the two began yelling at each other.

The car was not in park and started rolling into the intersection. Delfino ran back to the car to put it in park. In that moment, as Hernandez walked back toward his own car, Lyle got out of the passenger seat and ran toward the man.

A witness who was in a car at the intersection, testified at a hearing in 2019 that she saw Lyle running with “aggression” and clenched fists. She said Lyle delivered the punch, but not before Hernandez raised his hands as though “blocking” and cried in Spanish: “No! Please, don’t hit me.”

Jesus Ricardo Hernandez, 63, of Miami, died after he was punched and hit his head on the ground during a road-rage confrontation in March 2019.
Jesus Ricardo Hernandez, 63, of Miami, died after he was punched and hit his head on the ground during a road-rage confrontation in March 2019.

Hernandez crumpled, fracturing his skull on the ground. Delfino and the family drove off. Lyle was later collared at the airport, and initially arrested for battery.

After four days in the hospital, Hernandez died of head trauma. The Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office upgraded the charge to manslaughter.

Lyle, in asking a judge to dismiss the charge under Florida’s Stand Your Ground self-defense law in 2019, testified that he confronted the man because he was in fear for his family. “I saw this man attacking our car with my kids in it. I was actually trying to stop my kids from being killed or injured,” Lyle testified. “He could have gotten a gun, or could have used his car as a weapon.”

The judge declined to dismiss the case. He’s been awaiting trial on house arrest in Miami, not allowed to return to Mexico.

The Media Glare

From the day of his arrest, Lyle’s case has drawn intense media attention, particularly from the media in Mexico, where TV networks, gossip websites and social-media sites revel in the love lives and misbehavior of Latin singers and actors.

After one early hearing at Miami-Dade’s criminal courthouse, Mexican reporters swarmed lawyers as they left — blocking one prosecutor from the escalator, asking her to redo her walk down the hallway for additional B-roll footage. She refused.

Despite his modest fame before the road-rage incident, every tidbit about Lyle’s life has since been under the scrutiny of the Mexican media: His reported bouts of depression and insomnia in the months after the killing, his separation from his wife, actress Ana Araujo; his brother reportedly selling his gym to help support Lyle; his working in a Miami food truck to make ends meet.

“It’s like a ball of snow. It’s gotten bigger and bigger,” said Argueta, the Imagen TV reporter.

That trickled down on Tuesday, as a slew of potential jurors recalled consuming social media or TV coverage of the case. Most remembered seeing the surveillance video — which was released to the media in 2019 — that depicts the road-rage incident.

One older, potential juror recalled seeing the video, saying Lyle “was preying on an elderly man.”

“I cannot be impartial. I have very strong feelings about road rage. I already made up my mind on the case,” said the man, who was promptly excused.

For Lyle’s defense, the media exposure was a challenge.

The defense on Wednesday asked for the trial to be held in a different county, citing the amount of people who consumed media about the case. In addition, lawyers told the court, a mysterious SUV — possibly reporters — followed Lyle and a defense attorney as they drove home from the courthouse the previous night. Circuit Judge Marisa Tinkler Mendez denied the request.

‘Ethnicity is always a factor’

The issue of ethnicity has been an undercurrent to Lyle’s story, particularly in Spanish-language media, where it’s normal to identify people by their Latin-American country of origin. In story after story in Spanish, Lyle is routinely referred to as the “Mexican actor,” and Hernandez is called “Cuban.”

“People judging by ethnicity is always a factor in Miami, whether it’s an election, a jury trial or water-cooler politics in the office,” said Dario Moreno, an associate professor of politics and international relations at Florida International University, who is not involved in the case.

Almost 72 percent of Miami-Dade is of Hispanic descent, according to U.S. census data, with Cuban Americans roughly half the population. While there are growing numbers of Venezuelans and Colombians — not to mention a myriad of other Latin Americans — the Mexican population is relatively small, with many agricultural workers in South Miami-Dade, or wealthy business types in areas such as Brickell or Aventura.

Geri Fischman, a South Florida attorney and trial consultant, said that Miami’s unique Hispanic demographics mean this case “is likely to place these inter-Hispanic cultural divides under a microscope.”

“The danger for both the state and the defense is that racial and ethnic biases often manifest without awareness,” she said. “So, while a prospective juror may claim that she or he can be fair and impartial in this case, and set their biases and prejudices aside, this juror may have implicit biases that will influence his or her decision making subconsciously.”

Judge Tinkler Mendez, speaking to the lawyers outside of the presence of the jury, acknowledged the worries about inflammatory online and media commentaries over “Cuban versus Mexican.”

But as with all cases, questioning of potential jurors was a delicate dance, and covered a variety of topics.

For one, Miami-Dade Assistant State Attorney Shawn Abuhoff, who is trying the case with Gabriela Alfaro, asked potential jurors about their thoughts on road-rage encounters.

And Reizenstein asked jurors about their experiences being startled by strangers, the presumption of innocence and whether they could hold it against Lyle if he chose not to testify.

In the end, he decided against asking any questions about ethnicity.

“We asked the questions we felt were appropriate in the case,” Reizenstein, who is defending the case with attorneys Bruce Lehr, Alejandro Sola and Bhakti Kadiwar, said after the hearing.