RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — A police officer will serve 21 years in prison after confessing to joining fellow officers in murdering a Rio de Janeiro judge who dared take on the state's criminal militias, a court ruled.
Cpl. Sergio Costa Junior of the Sao Goncalo department of Rio state police was initially sentenced Tuesday to 33 1/2 years for murder and racketeering. The term was reduced because he confessed and is helping the prosecution of 10 other police officers who are facing trial in the slaying of Judge Patricia Acioli.
The judge's body was riddled with 21 police-issued bullets in front of her home in August 2011.
In 90 minutes of questioning before jurors, Costa Junior testified that he and the others decided to kill Acioli because she had ordered the arrest of Costa Junior and five fellow policemen on charges they executed an 18-year-old man and tried to cover up the crime by saying the victim resisted arrest.
"There were rumors that the judge would order our arrest," Costa Junior testified. "When she signed the order, it was the last straw."
Acioli's sister, Simone Acioli, held up her weeping mother after the verdict was read. She told the newspaper O Globo that her sister paid with her life "for doing her job correctly."
The trial was followed closely by the legal community in Rio. Acioli's murder sent a chill through the courts, as intended. Though violence and impunity are common in Brazil, this was the first time a judge was killed in Rio state and it sent a strong message about the reach and power of the state's criminal militias.
These paramilitary organizations, made up in large part of police officers, jail guards, firefighters and others, had been slowly taking over poor communities formerly controlled by drug dealers and coercing residents to pay for illegal utility hookups, transportation and security. A state legislature investigation in 2008 found militias were connected to executions, extortion schemes and the kidnapping and torture of journalists who investigated their activities.
Few dared confront them as did Acioli, who put more than 60 officers in prison, the majority for murder. She had a keen sense of the risk she ran, writing letters to her supervisors requesting protection. Just one week before her murder, she went personally to the Rio police's internal affairs office to report the threats.
The last case on her docket the day she died was the one Costa Junior referred to during questioning in court: the execution of Diego Belini, 18, in a shantytown. One of Acioli's last acts as a judge was to order the arrest of Costa Junior and others.
There are 150 other judges across Brazil who reported death threats in 2012, according to the National Council for Justice. At last count, only 61 were under protection.
The public defender representing Costa Junior told O Globo that he was disappointed in the small reduction in the prison sentence, saying his client ran a significant risk denouncing his former comrades.
"Now he's going to be thrown into the penitentiary system, in the worst place possible, since those who tell on others can't even be kept with other prisoners because of threats on their life," attorney Jorge Mesquita said. "His family is going to suffer threats now."
The prosecutor welcomed the verdict, particularly the racketeering charge that recognized Costa Junior was operating within a gang.
"This will reinforce the prosecution's arguments in the next trials," prosecutor Leandro Navega told O Globo.
The next trial in the case, involving three defendants, is scheduled to begin Jan. 29, 2013.