Prosecuting the Police

The State Attorney's Office takes heat no matter what the outcome

And at what point does bravado give way to paranoia generated by the conviction that there are two types of people in the world: cops and everyone else? For those individuals the goal is no longer the betterment of society but rather personal survival. How many officers have come to believe that politicians, journalists, and the public are just waiting to turn on them if they make a mistake? How many of them factor that into how they perform their jobs?

Aguero doesn't exist in a vacuum. In the case of the Coconut Grove shooting, more than a dozen officers formed a human shield to block onlookers' view as Aguero allegedly planted the throw-down weapon. I would have liked to discuss all this with Aguero himself, but his attorney refused my request for an interview with the suspended officer.

Which brings me to Miami-Dade Det. Laura Russell. Last week the Miami Herald ran a story about Russell, a robbery detective who three years ago began a second career in standup comedy. The story also noted that since this past January Russell has been using her comedy skills to work with a group of troubled teenagers an hour each week at the county's Juvenile Justice Center.

According to the kids, she's quite a hoot.

Russell's earlier work with troubled teens wasn't quite so funny. The Herald story neglected to mention that in 1991 she shot and killed an unarmed teenager in front of her North Miami house while he and his buddies tried to steal the stereo speakers from a neighbor's car.

Russell claimed Andrew Morello tried to run her down with his van and that she fired in self-defense. The police department's internal affairs division and the Dade State Attorney's Office cleared her of any wrongdoing, though in my opinion their investigations were whitewashes. As I wrote in a series of articles, the physical evidence actually showed Morello was driving in reverse, away from Russell when she shot him. (Russell later filed a defamation lawsuit against me and New Times over those stories, though eventually she withdrew the suit.)

Do I think Russell deliberately killed Morello? No, I don't. I've always believed she was startled by one of the teenagers that night, panicked, and accidentally shot the boy. But what I've never understood is why she couldn't just say that.

When I saw last week's Herald story about Russell, I called Morello's parents. They fought for years to expose the truth about their son's death, and they hated that the boy was described by authorities as someone who tried to kill a police officer. They did not want “attempted cop killer” to be their son's epithet.

Andrea Morello read the story about Russell and seethed a mother's rage. Joe Morello wondered if Russell's work with teenagers was an act of contrition on her part. Was she feeling guilty for shooting his son? Good question. Russell, however, wouldn't return my phone calls.

Similarities exist between the Morello shooting and the Coconut Grove case. In the Grove incident, officers came upon two homeless men they thought were brawling in the street. They actually were just horsing around, but both men admitted it may have looked as though they were fighting. As one of the officers approached, he saw something shiny and black in the hands of one of the men, and, believing it was a gun, shot him, wounding him in the leg. In fact the man was holding a Sony Walkman.

If the officers on the scene had just told the truth, they would have been cleared of any wrongdoing. Instead they ditched the Walkman, and Aguero allegedly came along and planted a gun at the scene.

It's worth pointing out that the stories officers create often make them seem heroic: confronting armed suspects or standing in the path of an oncoming vehicle. Is it really better to lie and sound courageous than to tell the truth and appear human?

So pervasive is the culture of lying within the Miami Police Department, that city attorneys would rather pay out huge settlement sums to individuals who sue the department than risk going to court and having officers' veracity questioned before a jury.

Even more troubling is the notion that lying actually works -- at least from the officer's perspective. Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle cites the Coconut Grove case as an example of her office vigorously searching out the truth. And yet consider the I-395 shooting. Rundle's office cleared those officers of wrongdoing through an inquest, but the case is about to unravel. Why didn't prosecutors catch it five years ago?

I learned a lot about inquests when I was investigating Andrew Morello's death. Laura Russell was cleared during an inquest as well, which shouldn't surprise anyone. Inquests are nothing more than dog-and-pony shows put on by the State Attorney's Office to give the public the illusion that police shootings are seriously scrutinized by an independent judge. In more than 98 percent of Miami-Dade inquests held since 1982, the police officer was cleared of wrongdoing.

A coroner's inquest is like a trial except that the prosecutor is the only one who gets to present evidence to the judge; no one is permitted to challenge that presentation. In the Morello case, for instance, prosecutors conveniently withheld from evidence tapes of Russell calling 911 immediately after the shooting and declaring that the van was backing up -- a key bit of information as Russell later claimed Morello was trying to run her down.

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