Death of Andrew Morello
In the split second it took Laura Russell to squeeze the trigger on her 9mm Smith & Wesson pistol, Andrew Morello's fate was sealed. Russell, an off-duty Metro-Dade police officer, says lethal force was necessary to keep Morello from killing her and her husband outside their home. Morello, she claims, was trying to run her down in a van after he and three of his friends were caught burglarizing a neighbor's car. She fired once, hitting the sixteen-year-old square in the chest. He died an hour later at Jackson Memorial Hospital.
Passions escalated after the February 1 shooting in North Miami. Violence returned to the neighborhood just hours later when a drive-by gunner mistakenly shot into the house of Laura Russell's next-door neighbor. Police said it was in retaliation for Morello's death. Candlelight vigils and demonstrations were organized by Morello's friends and family, who decried the officer's actions. The dead boy's parents launched a relentless personal crusade to ensure that justice would be done.
Emotions aside, the question for investigators seemed simple: Did Laura Russell need to fire her weapon? Was she in imminent mortal danger? If the van was moving directly toward her in a threatening manner, the answer would be clear - she was justified in killing Andrew Morello. And importantly, if it were determined that Morello's death was justifiable, then two of the three friends with him that night - seventeen-year-old Anthony Vincent and sixteen-year-old Bjorn DiMaio - would likely be charged with murder. (Under Florida law, if a person dies during the commission of a felony, his accomplices can be held liable for murder. If convicted, the teen-agers could spend the rest of their lives in prison. Prosecutors granted immunity to the third friend, sixteen-year-old Ralph Scocco.)
On the other hand, if Laura Russell's life appeared not to be in danger, if the van was not a threat to her, if the shooting of Andrew Morello was not clearly justified, then serious doubt would arise regarding the propriety of her actions, exposing her to charges of criminal negligence and manslaughter.
Florida Launch vs. Atlanta Blaze
TicketsSat., Jun. 17, 7:00pm
NPC Southern States Bikini, Figure, Men's Physique
TicketsFri., Jul. 7, 6:00pm
NPC Southern States Bodybuilding Championships vs. NPC Southern States Fitness & Figure Championships
TicketsSat., Jul. 8, 6:00pm
Florida Launch vs. Chesapeake Bayhawks
TicketsSat., Jul. 15, 7:00pm
To answer these questions, Dade State Attorney Janet Reno followed her standard policy when a police officer kills someone. Her office requested a court hearing known as an inquest, an unusual process in which a prosecutor presents complete and impartial evidence to a judge, who then determines whether there is probable cause to believe the police officer committed a crime in discharging his or her weapon.
On Monday, March 30, after an inquest that lasted all day, Circuit Court Judge Morton Perry issued a ruling. He said he believed the van driven by Andrew Morello was going forward and that Officer Laura Russell was forced to shoot in order to defend herself. Although his decision was solely advisory in nature, the State Attorney's Office accepted it as definitive. The investigation of Russell was officially closed.
Judge Perry also urged that charges be filed against two of Morello's partners that night: Anthony Vincent and Bjorn DiMaio. "It is my recommendation that the state attorney, in effect, deliver a message to all car burglars and other felons, both teen-agers and adults alike," Perry said sternly, "that when such conduct results in death, felony murder charges should be filed." Within 48 hours of Perry's ruling, the State Attorney's Office charged both boys with the murder of their best friend.
With so much at stake in such a proceeding, an exhaustive and rigorous search for the truth would seem obligatory for any prosecutor presenting the evidence. For the judge hearing that evidence, a thorough knowledge and understanding of all the facts would likewise seem a mandatory prerequisite to a fair hearing. The inquest of Andrew Morello's death was, however, neither exhaustive nor rigorous. And for the surviving friends and family of the teen-ager, it was anything but fair. A detailed investigation of the case by New Times revealed numerous problems. Among the findings:
* The State Attorney's Office failed to introduce critical information in its possession regarding the trajectory of the bullet that killed Morello, information that would have raised profound questions about Laura Russell's version of events.
* The State Attorney's Office did not make available to Judge Perry a copy or transcript of a 911 tape recording in which Russell told an emergency operator that the van "kept backing up," and in which she failed to mention that she had fired her weapon.
* Firearms tests conducted by the Dade County Medical Examiner's Office, which Judge Perry said he heavily relied upon in making his decision, were not conclusive, according to the man who performed them.
* The Medical Examiner's Office was never called to the crime scene, even though it is standard procedure for law enforcement agencies to do so after any homicide. (Though a medical examiner was not called, police reports indicate that an attorney working for the police union, the Police Benevolent Association, was summoned to consult with Laura Russell.)
* Morton Perry was not the original judge assigned to the inquest and had only been transferred the case on the Thursday before the Monday hearing. Perry admitted later that as a result, he had to prepare on very short notice. Although the judge said he believed he was ready, it is now obvious he was not entirely familiar with the facts, and was largely unaware of important inconsistencies.
There was no confusion, however, regarding what Andrew Morello, Anthony Vincent, Bjorn DiMaio, and Ralph Scocco had in mind when they pulled into the 800 block of NE 144th Street at approximately 3:15 in the morning. According to the other boys, Morello wanted the speakers from a Jeep Cherokee parked on the block.
As they sat in the van Morello had borrowed from his father, they debated who would get out and break into the Jeep. DiMaio later said he went because he had the most experience in such matters. He walked across the street, saw that the Jeep was outfitted with a burglar alarm, and kicked one of the tires to see if the alarm was activated by motion. It wasn't, so DiMaio quietly broke the small triangular window on the passenger's side, reached in, rolled down the side window, and carefully crawled inside.
In the house next door, George Russell, a Miami police officer, had just gone to bed when Thor, his German shepherd, began barking. Russell followed Thor into the living room and looked out the front window. Across the street, parked off the road on a grassy swale, he could see a black van. To the side, he later recalled in a sworn statement given to investigators, he saw someone near his wife's car, which was parked in the driveway.
The neighborhood had recently been troubled by auto thefts and burglaries, so Russell walked back to the bedroom and woke up his wife, who had gotten home from work at about 1:30 a.m. and had gone to bed a short time later. "Somebody's screwing with the cars out front," he told her. They grabbed their guns, put on robes, and headed for the front door.
"The fucking van's running," Russell said to his wife as they stepped outside. In an effort to get a license plate number, George Russell tried to circle around behind the idling van. Morello, in the driver's seat of the van, saw the Russells coming out of their house and initially drove forward a few feet. Anthony Vincent, sitting in the back, told him to stop and go backward instead so they wouldn't see the tag number. Morello changed gears. As the van backed up, Ralph Scocco crouched down in the passenger's seat and covered his face with his hands.
Laura Russell, in a sworn statement, said the van began backing up "at high speed, real high speed." Her husband, however, said the van was moving "very slow," an "absolute creep." They both said they screamed over and over again, "Stop! Police!"
Morello backed the van down the street and pulled alongside the Jeep, which was parked next door to the Russells' house. Laura Russell told detectives she moved into the street, in front of the van. Her husband testified he was a couple of feet behind her, standing in the middle of the street. (See diagram A, page 12.) Their attention was concentrated entirely on the van, specifically on Morello, the driver. At this point, Laura and George Russell both have said, they had no idea someone was inside the Jeep.
Bjorn DiMaio, having removed one speaker in the Jeep, was quietly working on the second when he noticed Morello's back-up lights. As the van pulled even with the Jeep, several things happened almost simultaneously. Anthony Vincent opened the sliding side door of the van, and as a result, the van's interior dome light came on. DiMaio then opened the back door of the Jeep, setting off the alarm. He jumped out and leaped into the van through the sliding door, moving so quickly he literally jumped out of one of his sneakers. Laura and George Russell told investigators they were startled when the door to the Jeep opened and a figure came bounding out. "I was completely surprised," Laura Russell said. "I had no idea there was anybody over there at all."
According to her sworn statement, Laura Russell was less than ten feet from the van when it stopped and the dome light came on. She said she was standing directly in front of the van, between the passenger's-side headlight and the center of the van. A Metro-Dade homicide detective later asked her to describe what happened next.
When the dome light came on inside the van, the detective inquired, was the vehicle stopped or moving? "Well it was...it's hard to say," she answered in her sworn statement. "I don't know. I don't know if it was, you know, it was like a transitional phase. It wasn't like it stopped for any length of time. It's like it was in reverse, it stopped for a second and then it started forward, and at some point during that, the light came on, because I saw it."
Russell was asked to describe the change in gears and the movement of the van. "Well, like I said, it was kind of all one thing," she explained. "The van never really completely, I guess, stopped motion, but it stopped and then it changed directions and it came at me.... I had my gun pointing at the driver and I remember screaming, `No!' and it came forward at me, the van did, and I shot him." Russell said that after she fired, the van came to a sudden stop about five feet from her. The driver, she claimed, then threw the vehicle into reverse and backed down the street.
Why did she shoot? "Because I thought I was gonna die and I thought my husband was gonna die," she replied. If she hadn't shot, she was asked, did she believe Morello would have run her down? "Absolutely," she responded, "beyond the shadow of any doubt."
In sworn statements given to investigators, all three of the teen-agers with Morello contradicted Russell's scenario. (Morello's friends were questioned separately, under oath, within hours of the incident. Laura and George Russell also answered investigators' questions shortly after the shooting, though they didn't provide sworn statements immediately. George Russell was questioned under oath a couple of days later, but Laura Russell did not provide her sworn account until March 12, nearly six weeks after the shooting.)
The van never moved forward toward the officer, the boys told police. They said Morello was backing up to get DiMaio, came to a rolling stop, and kept backing down the street after he'd been shot. Detectives asked Anthony Vincent if Morello changed gears after DiMaio leaped into the van. "No," Vincent answered. "He had stopped and then proceeded backwards." The van, he said, was in reverse the entire time, and when Morello was shot, the wounded teen immediately hit the gas and sped off backward. "He was just yelling, `She shot me in the chest! She shot me in the chest!' over and over again," Vincent told detectives.
Morello steered the van in reverse to the end of the block and then spun it 90 degrees to the right. The left front tire blew out under the pressure of the sharp turn, but Morello kept control of the vehicle and began driving south on NE Eighth Avenue. About a block later he passed out. From behind the driver's seat, DiMaio leaned over Morello's body and grabbed the steering wheel to avoid hitting a tree. The boys told investigators the van was still accelerating because Morello's foot was pressing down on the gas pedal. Morello's foot was pulled from the pedal as DiMaio continued steering for another block, to 142nd Street, where he turned the corner and pulled into the front yard of Carla Izzo, Morello's cousin. In order to stop the van, DiMaio said he slammed the gearshift into the "park" position.
Despite repeated calls from Izzo's house to 911, it took almost twenty minutes for paramedics to arrive. By the time Morello was finally airlifted to Jackson Memorial Hospital, internal bleeding had drained him of two liters of blood. There was nothing doctors could do.
Although the shooting occurred within the city limits of North Miami, Metro-Dade detectives immediately took over the investigation of their fellow officer, Laura Russell. "It's been an established policy that they handle shootings anywhere in Dade County that involve their officers," North Miami Police Chief Kenneth Each said not long after the incident. "Metro-Dade has jurisdiction all over the county."
North Miami detectives were perfectly capable of conducting the investigation, Chief Each noted, but he saw nothing wrong with Metro-Dade handling its own case, and he expressed confidence that county detectives would do a "very thorough investigation." As a safeguard, he pointed out, the State Attorney's Office would review the evidence and an inquest would be held to present all the facts. Added the chief: "There is always an outside audit."
On March 30, the day of their son's inquest, Andrea and Joseph Morello stood outside Courtroom 5-2 on the fifth floor of the Metro Justice Building, and saw Laura Russell for the first time. She was dressed in a pink jacket, a floral-print skirt, and white stockings. Her brown hair was held back with a couple of pins. She was prettier than they had expected. Then again, they would say later, they didn't really know what to expect.
The hallway that morning was crowded, though the lines were clearly drawn. At one end of the hall more than a dozen Metro-Dade police officers - some in uniform, others in plain clothes -milled around, waiting for the courtroom doors to open. At the other end stood at least two dozen of Andrew Morello's friends and family members, many wearing black T-shirts with Andrew's name printed on them along with the song title, "It's So Hard to Say Goodbye." Filling the gap were television camera crews and newspaper reporters, who drifted back and forth between the two groups, gathering pictures and quotations for their stories.
When the doors opened, the police officers filed in unmolested while Morello's friends and family were forced to walk through a metal detector, their bags and pocketbooks searched. Once inside the courtroom, Laura Russell sat in the front row of the gallery, flanked by her husband and Police Benevolent Association attorney Michael Cornley. The visiting officers filled the seats around the trio, and from time to time during the inquest leaned over and patted Russell on the back or whispered words of encouragement.
Because of the speed with which the police officers had filed in and the delay caused by the metal detector (standard in all courtrooms), Andrea and Joseph Morello were only able to find seats in the second-to-last row. They were tired from not having slept the night before, but sitting there holding hands, they prayed that the inquest would answer their questions about what had happened the night their son was killed.
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?)
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.
If it were true, Rosenberg pointed out, that Morello's arm had been extended behind the passenger's seat, then it would not have been in one of the two positions Wetli described. And if, as Scocco had indicated, Morello's arm wasn't on the armrest, then it only could have been hit by the shell casing if it had been stretched out ahead of him, which would have placed his right hand on or near the gearshift. The doctor's experiment proved that. Finally, without explicitly saying so, Rosenberg implied that if Morello's hand had been near the gearshift, he might have been poised to put the van in "drive" and proceed forward toward Russell.
After the hearing, Scocco was in tears. He hadn't really given much thought to his answer about the position of Morello's arm; he didn't think it was that big a deal. "They put so much pressure on you," he said in the courthouse hallway. "They only want to hear what they want to hear."
At least twice while announcing his ruling, Judge Perry commended Dr. Wetli and emphasized the importance of his testimony. He said he found Wetli's experiment to be "of great help" and called it the "most objective evidence" presented at the inquest. But in an interview after the hearing, Wetli repeatedly stressed to New Times that the results of his experiment were only preliminary and that more testing was needed before it should be considered conclusive. Wetli, who is not a ballistics or firearms expert, said he had never attempted this experiment before and was trying out things as he went along.
Wetli also revealed that that he was never called to the crime scene, a fact that was not presented at the inquest. "They were going to call me to the scene," he said, "which would be routine, but as things got busy they just forgot." Perhaps more important, Wetli never even saw the van upon which he based his test. "I never did get to see the inside of the van," he admitted, "which was something I really wanted to do."
Perhaps if Wetli had had time to refine his experiment, and if qualified ballistics experts had verified the results, it might have proven that Morello's right hand was indeed on or near the gearshift. But shouldn't that have occurred before Wetli was allowed to testify, especially in light of the significance Judge Perry attached to the experiment? Yes, Wetli acknowledged - if the Morello hearing had been a real trial. This, however, was only an inquest. "I was able to provide the amount of evidence the court needed for the purpose of the inquest," he said. "Now, for the purposes of a criminal trial, your standards have to be a lot higher."
Pressed about the impression his experiment had made upon Judge Perry, Wetli countered by saying there was other important testimony at the inquest: "You also had another witness that heard three different transmission modes."
Wetli was referring to one of the truly strange moments of the inquest. In an apparent effort to support the argument that Andrew Morello was driving the van forward toward Laura Russell, prosecutor Rosenberg called the Russells' next-door neighbor to testify. (Laura Russell herself declined to testify at the inquest.) Larry Trach said he heard three distinct engine noises he described as "revving" sounds. Rosenberg asked if the revving noise could be the sound of gears changing, such as when a car goes from forward to reverse. Trach agreed.
Through a series of labored questions, the prosecutor tried to establish that Trach, from inside his house, had heard Morello change gears. "Your opinion," the prosecutor said, "is that the first sound and the third sound are the same, but different from the second." (The prosecutor seemed to be leading Trach to conclude that the first engine noise was the sound of the van backing up to the Jeep, the second was Morello changing gears in an attempt to run down Russell, and the third was the van being placed in reverse again and retreating.) Trach pondered Rosenberg's question and then nodded in agreement. "But if it was going forward or backward, I could not tell you," Trach added. Later, after Judge Perry joined the questioning in an effort to clarify what Trach may have heard, Trach became flustered. "The whole thing," he said, "happened in five seconds."
Rosenberg's presentation of events would have required Judge Perry to believe that Trach was able to distinguish three separate engine noises after being awakened from a sound sleep at 3:30 in the morning, amid a great deal of commotion: Thor was barking, the Jeep's car alarm was blaring, the Russells were yelling, "Stop! Police!" During these moments, Trach, who said he was startled by the gunshot, was also racing around his house looking for his keys so he could open the front door. Furthermore, Trach's wife, Irene, didn't mention during her testimony hearing any engine noises. And Terrence Trach, the couple's 33-year-old son, who was also home, testified he heard only two engine noises.
Closer scrutiny of Larry Trach's testimony exposed a more substantial problem. Prior to the inquest, both Larry and Irene Trach told New Times their household was awakened by the sound of the Jeep's alarm. During questioning by investigators three days after the shooting, Larry Trach was asked that very question: What woke him up? "The car alarm went off on the street," he said.
All testimony from the Russells and the teen-agers with Morello corroborated the fact that the car alarm was not triggered until after the van had backed up to the Jeep. Which would mean that when Larry Trach claimed to have heard the first revving (or "gear change," as Rosenberg described it), he would still have been asleep. "That's a good point," Judge Morton Perry acknowledged in an interview not long after the inquest.
In the days following the Morello hearing, Judge Perry allowed New Times to review all the sworn statements entered into evidence, none of which had been made public prior to the inquest. He also spent several hours discussing his involvement in the case and his rationale for ruling as he did.
Perry had only been assigned the inquest on the Thursday before the Monday hearing, which forced him to study intensely and quickly. "I spent Friday night, all day Saturday, all day Sunday, into Monday, reading all this crap, making notes," he explained. "I just want you to know that I spent a lot of goddamn time on this thing." Despite his weekend efforts, the judge apparently still did not have enough time to prepare completely. For instance, throughout the hearing, prosecutor Rosenberg repeatedly made reference to a party the boys had attended the night of the burglary. In discussing the case, Perry was asked if he was under the impression Morello and the other boys had been drinking that night. "They must have had a drink or two, I guess, I don't know," he answered. "It was not that significant. I don't think they were roaring drunk."
It's doubtful that Perry's decision in the case was strongly influenced by his belief the four boys had been drinking. But his assumption that they had been drinking demonstrated that he had not studied the autopsy report in depth. The Medical Examiner's Office determined there was no evidence of alcohol or other drugs in Morello's system. Moreover, friends and family members of the other teen-agers said none of them had been drinking that night.
The autopsy report wasn't the only piece of evidence that did not receive careful scrutiny. Another example: After the shooting, Laura Russell ran to her house and dialed 911. The call was interesting for several reasons. First, Russell never mentioned that she had just fired her weapon; she simply told the emergency operator she and her husband had interrupted an auto theft and her husband was in his car trying to chase the van. She also didn't inform 911 that the driver of the van had tried to kill her, which presumably would be important information for other officers so they would be cautious in approaching the van.
At another point during her call, Russell said, "One of them came at us," although it was not clear to whom she was referring - Morello driving the van or DiMaio startling them when he bolted out of the Jeep. A few seconds later she said, "They came at us," which could support the contention that the van had been moving toward them. Finally she said, "They kept backing up. We kept trying to get their tag, and they kept backing up." The Morello family thought it was significant that Russell told 911 the van "kept backing up," hopeful it would lend credence to their belief their son was driving in reverse the entire time. In interviews prior to the inquest, the Morellos said they were eager to hear the tape played and discussed in court.
And what did Judge Perry think of the 911 call? Unfortunately, he was not in a position to form an opinion. The tape was never played at the inquest, nor was a copy or a transcript provided to Perry. The judge saw the 911 transcript for the first time three days after issuing his ruling, when New Times provided him with a copy for review. (Prosecutor Rosenberg said later he didn't play the 911 tape or provide a transcript because it was not relevant and "didn't have anything to do with what happened at the shooting.")
Laura Russell didn't tell the 911 operator that the driver of the van had just tried to kill her and her husband, but she did reportedly say that to next-door neighbor Terrence Trach, who came outside within a minute of the shooting. Judge Perry said he felt this was important because Russell wouldn't have had time to concoct a story. George Russell made similar statements, according to Terrence Trach, after returning home from his unsuccessful effort to find the van.
As much as Perry placed a high value on what he described as Laura and George Russell's "excited utterances," he seemed to discredit statements made by Andrew Morello's friends soon after the shooting. "I don't think they said, `He was shot while we were in reverse,' or anything like that," the judge said. "I wasn't too interested, very honestly, in what happened later."
Even though Perry didn't believe the boys made any relevant statements immediately after the shooting, documents in his possession included sworn statements from DiMaio, Vincent, and Scocco - taken separately less than ten hours after the incident - in which each of them said the van had been in reverse when Morello was shot. (The teen-agers had little time to confer before they were questioned by detectives. Soon after police arrived, all three were isolated and interviewed separately.)
In addition, Perry had been given the sworn statement of Carla Izzo, Morello's cousin. After Morello's friends quickly drove two blocks from the scene of the shooting to Izzo's house, they came banging on her door for help, screaming that Andrew had been shot. In her statement, Izzo noted that at least one of the boys said the van was going backward when Morello was shot, but the issue was not explored by investigators questioning her. Assistant State Attorney Rosenberg said later he discounted Izzo's statement because the boys had lied to her, initially claiming they hadn't been doing anything wrong. On the other hand, Dana Klier, a sixteen-year-old friend of Bjorn DiMaio, said in her statement that DiMaio walked over to her house shortly after the incident and told her about the burglary, as well as stating that the van was moving backward.
Joseph Morello, Andrew's father, also corroborated the consistency of remarks made by his son's friends. When he learned of the shooting, approximately ten minutes after it took place, he raced to Izzo's house and talked to the boys even before police had a chance to question them. He asked Ralph Scocco what had happened when his son was shot, and the boy reportedly replied over and over again, "I don't know, I don't know. We were going backwards." However, Judge Perry could not have known what Joseph Morello had been told. Neither the police nor the State Attorney's Office bothered to take a statement from him.
For the Morello family, perhaps the most troubling aspect of the inquest was the absence of any testimony regarding the trajectory of the bullet through the van's windshield. When the police returned Joseph Morello's van to him, both he and his wife sat in it, hoping that might bring them closer to Andrew. It didn't. But the experience did provoke disturbing questions about the path of the fatal bullet. As they sat in the front seats, they recalled what Anthony Vincent had told them - that the shot did not come from in front of the van but from far off to the right side. And they began to develop a suspicion that today has become a firm conviction: Laura Russell, they concluded, could not have been standing where she said she was when she shot their son.
The fundamental basis for Russell's claim of self-defense, as she repeatedly noted in her sworn statement, was that she was in the path of the van as it bore down on her. She had no choice but to shoot. The physical evidence, however, appeared to contradict that. The bullet hole in the windshield was located on the passenger's side in the lower right-hand corner. If Russell, as she said, was standing in front of the van near its center, a shot aimed at the driver would have left a hole much closer to the driver's side of the windshield. (See diagram B, page 12.) Police photographs, in fact, show that crime-scene technicians placed the position of the shooter at the extreme right side of the van, not in front of it.
"I'm not going to comment on that," Metro-Dade homicide detective Steve Parr replied when asked about the trajectory of the bullet. Parr, who supervised the police investigation of the shooting, said that any interpretation of the physical evidence by New Times was merely "your opinion. You can present your point of view in your own way, any way you want." And he insisted that New Times had misunderstood Russell's sworn statement. For emphasis he added that he should know the statement's contents - he was the one who questioned Russell.
Following the interview with Parr, four days after the inquest, New Times returned to Judge Morton Perry in an effort to clarify the matter of Russell's position at the time she fired. Using a piece of paper on a table in his chambers to represent the van, the judge pointed to a spot directly in front of the van's passenger's-side headlight. "Here," he said. Would she have been about seven to ten feet in front of the van? Yes, he replied, definitely in front.
The judge then retrieved a copy of Laura Russell's statement, in which Parr asked Russell where she was standing when the van purportedly began moving forward. Russell stated under oath: "I was still in front of the van. I was slightly to the right - my right - of the headlight of the passenger."
At that point Parr said, "Still on the passenger side but...." Russell interrupted: "Yeah, between the center of the van and the headlight." And after she shot, Parr asked, where was she standing in relation to the van? "I was probably less than five feet in front of it," Russell answered.
Judge Perry then examined photocopies of the police crime-scene photographs, provided to him by New Times, which re-created the bullet's trajectory and clearly indicated that the position of the shooter must have been to the right of the van, not directly in front of it. Perry looked at the photographs and wondered aloud: "Did I see these? I don't recall if I did or not."
The judge asked where New Times got the photographs. When informed that they were on file in the evidence room at the court clerk's office, he realized these were photos he himself had accepted into evidence four days earlier. Perry then modified his expression of doubt about having seen them before. "I don't want to say if I did or I didn't," he hedged, adding that his current court schedule had caused him to be tired.
The photographs easily could have been overlooked by Perry, considering the manner in which they were presented in court. Prosecutor Rosenberg submitted them to the judge as part of a packet of photos, including pictures of DiMaio's sneaker in the street, an aerial view of the block where the shooting occurred, and photographs of the burglary tools found inside the Jeep. (Rosenberg later told New Times he didn't draw attention to the photos depicting the bullet's trajectory because he didn't think they proved anything. The angle of the bullet was open to interpretation, he said, and if Judge Perry had wanted to know more, he could have asked.)
Did the photographs cast any doubt on Laura and George Russell's claims that she had to shoot? That she was standing directly in the van's path? "But she said she was," the judge answered with a confidence that suggested certainty.
Recalling from memory the inquest's testimony, Perry accurately noted that there had been no testimony whatsoever concerning the trajectory of the bullet through the windshield. The judge then surmised that if the State Attorney's Office had felt it important, prosecutor Rosenberg would have presented an expert witness to discuss the bullet's path.
Was it possible that officials from the State Attorney's Office chose not to call such an expert because they didn't want to contradict Laura and George Russell's statements? Judge Perry had no response.
If Laura Russell wasn't in the path of the van, and Andrew Morello wasn't about to run her down, then was it possible Russell shot Morello for some reason other than self-defense? Was it possible the shooting might not have been justified? Was it possible Russell was startled by Bjorn DiMaio suddenly jumping from the Jeep and the van's dome light coming on? Was it possible she squeezed the trigger in a moment of fright or panic? Perry's expression grew serious, but he remained silent.
Because these questions weren't even broached during the inquest, was it unreasonable for the Morello family to believe the hearing was unfairly slanted in favor of Laura Russell? Was it unreasonable to believe that the inquest was unfair to Anthony Vincent and Bjorn DiMaio, who have now been charged with murder? "I see what you're saying," Judge Perry answered slowly.
A few days prior to the inquest, Bjorn DiMaio sat in a friend's living room, fidgeting, nervous. He tapped a pen on the table, looked around, smiled, looked away. His friends say this is normal for DiMaio; "skitchy" is the way one friend described him. Skitchy or not, on this day he had good reason to be nervous. DiMaio knew the State Attorney's Office was considering filing murder charges against him. "I'm scared. I don't know why they would do that," he said. "It wasn't my fault it happened. I didn't do it. Nobody deserves to die over some speakers."
A gawky, immature youngster from a broken home, DiMaio has no record of violence, but he is familiar with crime. He broke into his first car when he was fourteen, he was good at it, it made him popular. "It's not the money," he explained. "I guess you could call it exciting, fun." He'd been arrested a couple of times, once for breaking into a Corvette, another time for trying to sneak into an amusement park without paying. His punishment had always been light - community-service programs. Now he was facing hard time. "I don't want to get locked up for twenty years for my best friend's death," he said. "I know I should get what I deserve for doing the burglary, but I don't think it's right that I get charged with any of that other stuff." (More than a week after murder charges were filed against him, DiMaio had not surrendered and police had not located him.)
Ralph Scocco wasn't facing murder charges. His agreement to testify at the inquest, and his peripheral involvement in the burglary, had led the State Attorney's Office to offer him immunity from prosecution. But he concurred with DiMaio that further charges seemed unfair. And he added that no one seemed to remember that he, DiMaio, and Vincent will forever have to live with the horror of that night. "It was hard to watch him die," Scocco said through tears.
The shooting and the consequences of the inquest have affected the families as well. Hours after Anthony Vincent was booked on murder charges, his mother anxiously waited in line at the Dade County Jail to post her son's $25,000 bond. Wiping tears from her face and visibly trembling from fear and anger, she said, "You don't want to hear what I have to say about the media and the justice system."
For Andrea and Joseph Morello, the loss of their son was excruciating. They were always convinced he should not have been shot and that he would never have tried to kill Laura Russell by running her down. But their frustrating search for the truth has led only to cynicism. Joseph Morello put his faith in the State Attorney's Office but was forced to conclude that he was naive to believe prosecutors would be aggressive in questioning the actions of police officers. "It's just too easy to throw that cloak over them and protect somebody when they are wrong," he said with disdain. "When they are wrong they should clean it up, not cover it up." As for the inquest itself, Morello has resorted to a four-word description, repeated loudly and often: "It was a farce.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Miami, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.