Justice Undone . . . Again

Four years after their son was killed by an off-duty cop, Joe and Andrea Morello are denied their day in court

Four years have passed since Laura Russell, an off-duty Metro-Dade police officer, shot and killed Andrew Morello while the sixteen-year-old and his friends were trying to steal stereo speakers from a Jeep Cherokee belonging to Russell's neighbors. Russell claimed she shot the teen in self-defense as Morello was about to run her down in a van. In the months after the shooting, the Metro-Dade Police Department, the Dade State Attorney's Office, and a circuit court judge all found Russell's actions justified.

Since then Russell has been promoted to detective. Janet Reno was promoted from Dade state attorney to attorney general of the United States. Judge Morton Perry, who presided over the inquest that followed the incident, has retired. Two boys who rode along in the van and were sent to prison for their role in the incident have finished serving their sentences.

But that calamitous moment in 1992 still haunts Andrew Morello's parents, Joe and Andrea, who have waged a fight to bring to light all of the facts involving the death of their son -- facts that contradict Russell's version of events. The Morellos' struggle was first chronicled in the April 15, 1992, New Times cover story "Justice Undone," which documented a parade of errors made by police and prosecutors and noted that key pieces of evidence were concealed by investigators and not presented at the inquest. That evidence suggested that Andrew Morello wasn't about to run down the off-duty cop in front of her house, but was instead driving in reverse -- away from Russell -- at the time he was fatally shot.

After the inquest the Morellos filed a civil suit against Russell, alleging that she had violated their son's civil rights. Working on a contingency-fee basis, the family's attorney, Neil Chonin, spent more than $10,000 hiring crime-scene experts and gathering testimony from witnesses in order to reconstruct what had occurred. Dade County, on behalf of Russell, made several attempts to settle the suit, once offering the family $35,000 to drop its claim, and then raising the amount to $100,000.

Both times the Morellos rejected the offer. "Money was never the issue," says Andrea Morello. "The issue was the truth. We wanted to go into court and present all of the facts to a jury. We wanted a jury to tell us what happened."

Last month the Third District Court of Appeals struck down the Morellos' lawsuit, ruling that as a police officer Laura Russell enjoyed "qualified immunity." The decision virtually guarantees that the case will never reach a jury.

"People tell me, 'Maybe it's for the best that it's over. Now you can get on with your life,'" Andrea Morello recounts. "But there is not a day that goes by that I don't relive that entire night. I don't think we can ever put this behind us. Not the way it's been handled. Not what they've done to this family."

George Russell, a City of Miami police officer, awakened his wife a little after 3:00 a.m. on February 1, 1992. "Somebody's screwing with the cars out front," he told her. Putting on robes and grabbing their handguns, the couple headed out the door.

They saw a black van with three occupants idling across the street, its motor running. As the Russells approached the van, the driver pulled forward a few feet, then reversed, backing up alongside a Jeep Cherokee parked in front of a neighbor's house. Laura Russell later testified in a sworn statement that she ran out into the middle of the street after the van while both she and her husband yelled, "Stop! Police!" Then someone jumped from the Jeep to the van, which, she said, came barreling toward her. Russell testified that she was standing directly in front of the van and that she had to shoot to keep from being run over. She said she was also in fear for her husband, who she knew was somewhere behind her.

After she'd fired one shot, Russell claimed, the van came to a stop, reversed, and drove backward down the block to the intersection, where it careened around the corner, turned around, and headed off. As her husband took off after the van in his car, she went inside and dialed 911.

Andrew Morello drove his father's van to the house of a cousin who lived several blocks away. There he collapsed from a single bullet wound in the middle of his chest. He died a short time later at Jackson Memorial Hospital.

Under any circumstances, the loss of a child is a traumatic event for a parent to endure. George and Andrea Morello's torment was compounded by their own feelings of confusion and guilt A Andrew had been arrested once before and was having trouble in school. They had enrolled him in a private high school, where his attendance and grades were improving. "He was punished when he did something wrong and praised when he did something right," Andrea said not long after the shooting. "We thought we were heading in the right direction. It's a tricky age." In the midst of their grief, they received anonymous letters asserting that they were to blame or that Andrew had gotten exactly what he deserved. "If this bastard isn't asking to be killed," one letter read, "what is he saying?"

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