Death of Andrew Morello

For two months they had lived with anonymous letters sent to their home, telling them it was their fault Andrew was dead. "Put the blame where it belongs," one person wrote, "on the parents and the family." They'd lived with notes from one particular man who kept writing to say that Andrew got exactly what he deserved for burglarizing a car: "If this bastard isn't asking to be killed," the man wrote, "what is he saying?"

They had lived with the dreams that caused them to wake in the middle of the night calling out their son's name, and with paralyzing bouts of self-doubt. "I think about how we treated Andrew and what we tried to teach him," Andrea Morello would say later, "and I don't think there was anything we could have done. He was punished when he did something wrong and praised when he did something right. We thought we were heading in the right direction. It's a tricky age."

This wasn't a day for recriminations, however. It was a day for revelation and justice. At least that's what they had hoped. But even before the judge had finished announcing his decision, they left the courtroom in tears, angry and disgusted, feeling no closer to the truth than when they walked in the door.

The inquest got off to a shaky start. Assistant State Attorney Gary Rosenberg's first witness, a sixteen-year-old boy who overheard Morello and the others talk about breaking into the Jeep before the shooting, was so nervous he kept contradicting himself. His testimony, even Judge Perry would later admit, was completely irrelevant. It was, though, indicative of Rosenberg's approach to the case.

During the morning session, homicide detective Steve Parr recounted that all three boys believed the van was in reverse when Russell fired, but at least half of the testimony revolved around the planning and execution of the burglary rather than the shooting. It reached an absurd level when the judge and one witness argued about whether the man who provided the tools for the burglary was or was not mad about having to leave his girlfriend in a bar while he retrieved the tools from his shop.

Rosenberg, who says he has prepared about a half-dozen inquests during his career as a prosecutor, repeatedly pointed out that the stereo speakers DiMaio was stealing were intended for Morello. "Who is he prosecuting?" asked Carla Izzo, Morello's cousin, in a voice loud enough for others in court to hear. Rosenberg glared at her. In fact, he wasn't supposed to be prosecuting anyone; his job was to present all the facts in an objective fashion.

If Rosenberg was hoping to establish that Morello and the other boys were not novices at breaking into cars, he succeeded. As Judge Perry would later say privately: "These were no choirboys." But judgments about Morello's character would seem irrelevant; the narrow question at hand was the shooting itself. And regarding that issue, the pivotal testimony, in Perry's opinion, came from Dr. Charles Wetli, deputy chief medical examiner.

Based on the bullet's path as it entered Morello's chest, Wetli had determined that the boy was sitting in the driver's seat of the van with his body twisted to the right. The prosecutor asked Wetli if the position of Morello's body would be consistent with him looking back toward the sliding door (through which DiMaio jumped into the van). Wetli said yes.

What the prosecutor didn't ask was whether this position was also consistent with Morello looking out the van's rear window while backing up. After the inquest, New Times put the question to Wetli. His answer: "It could support easily the contention that the van was backing up." (Even accepting Laura Russell's claim that the van was moving forward, another important question was left unasked: Russell said she shot Morello after he began driving the van toward her, yet Wetli's physical evidence showed the bullet struck him while his upper body was turned sharply to the right, as if he were looking to the rear. How could Morello be turned away from Russell while trying to run her down at the same moment?)

Part Three
Wetli then presented the initial results of an experiment he had recently conducted, the point of which was to determine the position of Morello's right arm and hand at the time of the shooting. When Russell's bullet blasted through the windshield, according to Wetli, its casing broke away from the core of the slug. The slug went into Morello's chest and the casing struck his right arm, causing a bruise. Wetli tried to re-create the shooting by firing several bullets into a windshield to see where the casings would strike. Two possibilities emerged: For Morello's right arm to be hit by the casing, it would have had to have been positioned either at the back of his seat's right armrest or stretched out in front of him, with his hand possibly on the gearshift at the van's steering column.

Earlier in the inquest, Ralph Scocco, testifying under immunity but with reluctance, said he believed Morello's right arm had been extended behind the passenger's seat while Morello was turned to his right. Scocco was the only eyewitness called to the stand to describe this particular moment. (Neither Anthony Vincent nor Bjorn DiMaio testified at the inquest.) While questioning Wetli, Rosenberg returned to Scocco's recollection and used it to bolster the validity of Wetli's experiment while selectively undermining Scocco's credibility.

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