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Defense attorneys say they wouldn't be surprised if the Morello inquest was incomplete and one-sided. The proceedings are inherently flawed, they say, because prosecutors are allowed to present carefully selected evidence and testimony without the scrutiny of an opposing attorney's cross-examination.
"What a joke they are," says Miami attorney Jeffrey Weiner, president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. "This is a way for police shootings to be justified quickly and to close out the matter. It's a political `out' for the prosecutor's office in many instances."
Whenever a police officer's actions result in injury or death, both the police department involved and the Dade State Attorney's office undertake investigations. Dade State Attorney Janet Reno says that since 1982, inquests have been called whenever a police officer kills someone, except when the prosecutor and the police investigators agree the evidence supports the filing of criminal charges against the officer. That way, says Reno, all facts pertaining to police shootings are presented in open court, regardless of whether the State Attorney's Office levels charges, and there can be no public perception that her office is attempting to cover up police misconduct. Before 1982, the State Attorney's Office alone determined under what circumstances charges would be filed.
In the past ten years approximately 74 inquests have been held in Dade County, according to records at the State Attorney's Office. In 73 of those cases, police officers were cleared of wrongdoing. Only once did records indicate that an inquest resulted in a police officer being charged with a crime.
Obviously, police officers are often justified in using deadly force, Weiner says. "But in other cases, there are serious questions regarding police conduct which need to be raised, and the inquest is hardly the place they are raised in a meaningful way."
For one thing, says the defense lawyer, at an inquest a prosecutor is permitted to ask leading questions, to introduce unsubstantiated hearsay, and to decide which bits of information to stress as being significant and which to downplay as trivial. Also the prosecutor can control which witnesses are called and who is given immunity to testify. This means prosecutors are able to steer the judge toward a decision that clears the police officer. In the absence of a defense lawyer, it is entirely up to the judge to challenge a prosecutor's assertions.
Despite the ongoing working relationship between prosecutors and police officers, prosecutors presenting evidence at an inquest are trusted to be objective, impartial observers who merely deliver the facts of the case. Gary Rosenberg, the assistant state attorney who presented the evidence in the Morello inquest, says the relationship doesn't present a conflict. "I don't see any conflict at all," he says. "This office prosecutes police officers all the time."
Because the decision rendered is not binding, inquests aren't subject to appeal. State Attorney Janet Reno says that if the Morello family knows of any new information, her office is free to revisit the case. "If they have any additional evidence to present," Reno says, "please let us know. We can always reopen it.