Death of Andrew Morello

In the split second it took Laura Russell to squeeze the trigger on her 9mm Smith & Wesson pistol, Andrew Morello's fate was sealed. Russell, an off-duty Metro-Dade police officer, says lethal force was necessary to keep Morello from killing her and her husband outside their home. Morello, she claims, was trying to run her down in a van after he and three of his friends were caught burglarizing a neighbor's car. She fired once, hitting the sixteen-year-old square in the chest. He died an hour later at Jackson Memorial Hospital.

Passions escalated after the February 1 shooting in North Miami. Violence returned to the neighborhood just hours later when a drive-by gunner mistakenly shot into the house of Laura Russell's next-door neighbor. Police said it was in retaliation for Morello's death. Candlelight vigils and demonstrations were organized by Morello's friends and family, who decried the officer's actions. The dead boy's parents launched a relentless personal crusade to ensure that justice would be done.

Emotions aside, the question for investigators seemed simple: Did Laura Russell need to fire her weapon? Was she in imminent mortal danger? If the van was moving directly toward her in a threatening manner, the answer would be clear - she was justified in killing Andrew Morello. And importantly, if it were determined that Morello's death was justifiable, then two of the three friends with him that night - seventeen-year-old Anthony Vincent and sixteen-year-old Bjorn DiMaio - would likely be charged with murder. (Under Florida law, if a person dies during the commission of a felony, his accomplices can be held liable for murder. If convicted, the teen-agers could spend the rest of their lives in prison. Prosecutors granted immunity to the third friend, sixteen-year-old Ralph Scocco.)

On the other hand, if Laura Russell's life appeared not to be in danger, if the van was not a threat to her, if the shooting of Andrew Morello was not clearly justified, then serious doubt would arise regarding the propriety of her actions, exposing her to charges of criminal negligence and manslaughter.

To answer these questions, Dade State Attorney Janet Reno followed her standard policy when a police officer kills someone. Her office requested a court hearing known as an inquest, an unusual process in which a prosecutor presents complete and impartial evidence to a judge, who then determines whether there is probable cause to believe the police officer committed a crime in discharging his or her weapon.

On Monday, March 30, after an inquest that lasted all day, Circuit Court Judge Morton Perry issued a ruling. He said he believed the van driven by Andrew Morello was going forward and that Officer Laura Russell was forced to shoot in order to defend herself. Although his decision was solely advisory in nature, the State Attorney's Office accepted it as definitive. The investigation of Russell was officially closed.

Judge Perry also urged that charges be filed against two of Morello's partners that night: Anthony Vincent and Bjorn DiMaio. "It is my recommendation that the state attorney, in effect, deliver a message to all car burglars and other felons, both teen-agers and adults alike," Perry said sternly, "that when such conduct results in death, felony murder charges should be filed." Within 48 hours of Perry's ruling, the State Attorney's Office charged both boys with the murder of their best friend.

With so much at stake in such a proceeding, an exhaustive and rigorous search for the truth would seem obligatory for any prosecutor presenting the evidence. For the judge hearing that evidence, a thorough knowledge and understanding of all the facts would likewise seem a mandatory prerequisite to a fair hearing. The inquest of Andrew Morello's death was, however, neither exhaustive nor rigorous. And for the surviving friends and family of the teen-ager, it was anything but fair. A detailed investigation of the case by New Times revealed numerous problems. Among the findings:

* The State Attorney's Office failed to introduce critical information in its possession regarding the trajectory of the bullet that killed Morello, information that would have raised profound questions about Laura Russell's version of events.

* The State Attorney's Office did not make available to Judge Perry a copy or transcript of a 911 tape recording in which Russell told an emergency operator that the van "kept backing up," and in which she failed to mention that she had fired her weapon.

* Firearms tests conducted by the Dade County Medical Examiner's Office, which Judge Perry said he heavily relied upon in making his decision, were not conclusive, according to the man who performed them.

* The Medical Examiner's Office was never called to the crime scene, even though it is standard procedure for law enforcement agencies to do so after any homicide. (Though a medical examiner was not called, police reports indicate that an attorney working for the police union, the Police Benevolent Association, was summoned to consult with Laura Russell.)

* Morton Perry was not the original judge assigned to the inquest and had only been transferred the case on the Thursday before the Monday hearing. Perry admitted later that as a result, he had to prepare on very short notice. Although the judge said he believed he was ready, it is now obvious he was not entirely familiar with the facts, and was largely unaware of important inconsistencies.

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