The Bad Shoot

Wrong place, wrong time, wrong perp, wrong sentence

Barzee and Vucci weren't exerting themselves much, however. But they were free, the only kind of lawyers a jailed car audio installer could afford. They both came with big-time confidence, though, like Bruce Cutler in the second John Gotti trial. Torres remembers: "They kept telling me: 'The state has no case,' every time I got anxious about their easygoing approach."

Torres had a left front row seat in Judge Victoria Sigler's Courtroom 7-4 at the Miami-Dade County Criminal Courthouse on NW 12th Street. During his trial he kept his hands in his lap, sitting quietly attentive. Barzee and Vucci, his flanking saviors, preferred that demeanor -- calm, confident, but at the court's mercy -- to mitigate what they considered Torres's hard-knock looks.

Prosecutor Stephanie Silver presented her case. The defendant and his counsel listened to the state's main witness, Sergeant Picallo, but of the three only Torres looked antsy. Twice in his career before running into Torres, Picallo had encountered gun-slinging crooks and made them pay. In cases SI-1989-0357 and SI-1994-0165, he was cleared in both instances. Now Picallo testified that Torres had brandished a paintball gun, which he confused with a "submachine gun," in one hand, and the .25 Lorcin in the other.

Photo by Steve Satterwhite
Hector's lawyers felt he looked too "thuggish" to testify
Photo by Steve Satterwhite
Hector's lawyers felt he looked too "thuggish" to testify

The officer sat on the stand showing how Torres threatened his life: "He's got guns in each of his hands and I start yelling, 'Police, put the guns down!' and he started raising them in my direction," Picallo explained. The officer stuck both index fingers out, thumbs pointed up at 90 degrees, extended his arms, and swung them on the jury.

Two hands, two guns, pointed at him from six feet away, that's why he shot Torres: "I feared for my life and the lives of my officers," Picallo testified, which is exactly what the book defines as a "good" or "justified" shoot.

As the prosecution went on with its side, Torres's attorneys offered no objections. With the same feckless ease, they gave up Hector's main defense right, completely yielding Picallo's cross-examination. Hector was horrified. He stopped writing notes to anxiously whisper to Barzee and Vucci: "What are you doing? Why don't you show Picallo's lying?"

The lawyers said lamely that "fidgety talking" doesn't look "confident" or "innocent." Barzee just kept telling Torres to "Relax, relax." The people's counsel believed they had "a sure thing." As a tactic, Barzee claimed, he'd decided against trying to make the cops look bad. "He told me: 'Let's not make this us against them; we're going to ask for a free pass!' But that's not how things worked out."

Hector was only struck by one cap. Picallo didn't kill the suspect. But it wasn't from not trying. He fired at Torres three times across the length of a small apartment living room, approximately eight feet, according to crime scene diagrams. Two slugs were recovered: one from the wall behind where Hector was sitting, one from the sofa. (The third was inside Torres.) But Barzee and Vucci didn't want their defense to look "indiscreet" or "desperate" by working that angle, they repeated. Putting Picallo and the other officers on the spot wouldn't help Torres's case ...

During the trial, defense counsel had a stack of officer depositions documenting discrepancies, disregard for protocol, and violations of the defendant's civil liberties. There were 3000 pages of court files. The officers involved admitted they'd broken into a minor pot dealer's pad without a search warrant. During the bond hearing months before the trial, Picallo was asked about the department's search warrant policy. He responded: "What do you mean by a search warrant policy?" He wasn't sure about the rules for getting one. Picallo confessed his unit didn't even attempt it, despite the obvious dope buyers and Kevin Phillips's information. Apparently legal permission to invade someone's house was too ticky-tack for the steely blue GIU...

Further evidence of police heedlessness: The cops couldn't decide who'd secured the .25. Both Gonzalez and Veloz claimed credit. They'd offered no explanation for why Veloz didn't fire at the "dangerous" Torres, even though he'd entered the room first. The defense chose not to "point fingers" at wound-up officers who seemed to be expecting the O.K. Corral when they jumped a nickel-and-dhTorres the officers had to be "engaged in the lawful pursuit of their duties."

The night of the bust, the officers had had nearly an hour to get their stories straight before homicide detectives, who investigate police shootings whether or not someone dies, showed up. The bad shoot went off at approximately 1:05 a.m., and the officers involved weren't separated and questioned until 3:00 a.m., according to the deposition from their boss, Det. Tom Romagni. Somehow the officers' story became: Kid teams up with drug dealers and picks up fake gun because real one wasn't enough to fight cops(!).

According to Barzee and Vucci, the jury wasn't supposed to buy it, but they did. Torres got ten years. "When they read the verdict, I was stuck in the moment, I felt empty, like someone ripped out my heart," Torres says. His lawyers paid for the fact that they'd never cross-examined state witnesses, or called any of their own, although three people, Travis Allen, Carlos Campos, and Luis Castaneda, all gave prior statements supporting Torres's claim that he was not holding guns. Defense didn't think they were "credible"; Stephen Cohn, the doctor who treated Torres, wasn't even subpoenaed. Torres says he didn't take the stand in his own behalf, because his legal team thought he looked too thuggish. In hindsight, he believes the jury might have liked to hear him explain himself ...

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