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11 accused corruption { January 22 2003 }

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Trial under way for 11 Miami officers accused of corruption

By Diana Marrero
Miami Bureau
Posted January 22 2003

Depending on who tells the story, the 11 Miami police officers on trial for allegedly covering up a series of questionable shootings were either corrupt cops who saw themselves as above the law or officers who were simply protecting their community.

Once members of an elite street crime unit, the officers are charged with conspiracy to obstruct justice by planting evidence and lying to investigators in four high-profile shootings that resulted in the deaths of three men.

After years of complaints, internal police investigations and failed state prosecutions, the federal case got under way with opening statements on Tuesday. That the trial began the day after Martin Luther King Jr. Day did not escape the notice of activists, who argued that the racially polarized case shows how blacks in Miami continue fighting an uphill battle against racism. All 11 defendants are Hispanic, and most of the shooting victims were black.

Attorneys in the case, however, likely will try to avoid making the trial about race.

In his opening statement, Assistant U. S. Attorney Curtis Miner alluded to the race of some of the victims but focused on the connections between the officers and on their alleged actions.

"They were part of a clique that saw themselves as different from other officers on the force," Miner said. "They saw themselves as untouchable."

Miner told the jurors they won't have to decide whether the shootings were justified. Instead, they must decide whether the officers conspired to lie about the shootings, he said.

He said the prosecution's case would prove that the officers had worked together to cover up their misdeeds, planting "throw down" guns at scenes to justify the shootings. Some officers would confiscate guns during drug busts, then use them whenever they needed them.

"They knew they would cover for each other," Miner said.

Between 1995 and 1997, the shootings occurred at a time when Miami was making international headlines for violent tourist robberies.

The officers are accused of misleading investigators about four shootings: a November 1995 incident in which two young black men were killed while trying to get away from police after a smash-and-grab robbery; a March 1996 drug raid during which SWAT members killed a 72-year-old black man in a hail of 123 bullets; an April 1996 shooting of a fleeing purse-snatching suspect; and a June 1997 wounding of a homeless man in Coconut Grove who was shot in the leg by an officer who allegedly mistook the man's Walkman for a gun.

In what is expected to be a long and complicated trial, jurors must sort though a confusing array of facts to determine the guilt or innocence of the 11 officers, most of whom were not involved in every shooting. Each is charged with a different set of crimes.

During their opening statements, defense attorneys struggled to distance their clients from the other defendants while portraying them as public servants who put their lives on the line for the community. The officers were only doing their jobs, the defense attorneys said.

"And this is the thanks they get," said Bill Matthewman, an attorney representing Alejandro Macias. "The evidence in this case will show this is a flawed, flawed prosecution."

Other defense attorneys called into question the credibility of the government's star witnesses. The federal indictments are largely based on the testimony of two white officers -- John Mervolian and William Hames -- who pleaded guilty and agreed to testify against their colleagues.

Both officers, who are now retired, cooperated because it was in their best interest to do so, said Richard Sharpstein, an attorney for Arturo Beguiristain.

Sharpstein noted that Mervolian and Hames had for years given investigators accounts similar to those of the defendant. The two retired officers changed their version of events so that their statements would comply with the prosecution's allegations, Sharpstein said.

Trying to poke holes in the government's theories, Sharpstein contended that the officers had no need to cover up the shootings because they were all justified. Under department rules at the time, police officers could shoot suspects if they thought their lives were endangered.

The trial could last up to six months, during which 10 of the officers, all suspended, will continue to receive their salaries. Only one officer, Jesus "Jesse" Aguero, has been fired.

Aguero, who has gone to trial for one of the shootings, was acquitted in state court of charges that he planted a gun after the shooting of the homeless man in Coconut Grove.

Mistrials were declared for two other officers, Jorge Castello and Oscar Ronda; both are defendants in the federal case.

In their attempt at winning acquittals in federal court, defense attorneys have one thing going for them: juries are often reluctant to convict police officers, legal experts say.

The racial makeup of the jury on this case might also favor the defense: Eight jurors are Hispanic, three are white and one is black. Black jurors tend to be more skeptical of police, experts say.

The police scandal is the city's worst since the 1980s, when more than 100 officers were arrested, fired or disciplined for stealing cocaine from drug dealers.

Since the 11 officers on trial were indicted, law enforcement's handling of police shootings has increasingly sparked community outrage, brought down a police chief and prompted voters to create a civilian shooting review board with subpoena powers.

Wary that the officers might get off too easily, community leaders plan to closely monitor the trial.

"We will bring together community leaders to voice our concern for justice," said the Rev. James Phillips of People United to Lead the Struggle for Equality. "It was race that allowed these officers to get away with these crimes for so long."

Diana Marrero can be reached at or 305-810-5005.

Copyright 2003, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

11 above law { January 22 2003 }
11 accused corruption { January 22 2003 }
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