Justice Undone . . . Again
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?"
From the start, the Morellos worried that their son's death might not be investigated thoroughly and without bias. Although the killing occurred in the city of North Miami, the Metro-Dade Police Department -- Laura Russell's employer -- conducted the probe. This, they were told, was routine. They grew more doubtful when they discovered that while detectives had questioned Andrew's three accomplices for several hours immediately after the shooting, Russell was not questioned until six weeks later. And on the day of the incident, investigators had called a Police Benevolent Association attorney to the scene to represent Russell -- even before they summoned the coroner's office.
Eventually the Morellos placed their faith in the county's inquest process, and, specifically, in two people: Assistant State Attorney Gary Rosenberg, who would present all the evidence pertaining to the shooting, and Circuit Court Judge Morton Perry, who would make an advisory ruling as to whether Laura Russell's actions had been justified.
Inquests are convened almost exclusively in cases involving police officers who have killed someone. Their purpose is to ensure public confidence that all facts are brought to light and that prosecutors, who work hand in hand with police every day, aren't hiding evidence in order to protect an officer.
During the March 30, 1992, Morello inquest, Gary Rosenberg was the only attorney allowed to speak. But although it was his job to impartially lay out the facts for the judge, Rosenberg was selective in what he presented, dwelling on information that bolstered Russell's version of events and portrayed Morello in the worst possible light. For instance, he spent hours offering testimony about how Andrew Morello and his companions had planned to break into the Jeep -- an issue that was not a matter in dispute.
Two central questions were in dispute: Where was Laura Russell standing when she fired? And was Morello's van moving toward her or away from her? (In their statements to police immediately after the shooting, all of the boys argued that the van was not moving toward Russell at the time she fired.)
In addressing those questions, Rosenberg withheld a crucial piece of physical evidence -- the van's bullet-pocked windshield. Had Rosenberg introduced it, the judge would have seen the bullet hole in a windshield corner on the passenger's side of the van. Presumably, however, if Russell had been standing directly in front of the van as she claimed, the bullet hole should have been on the driver's side.
Metro-Dade investigators had discerned the bullet's trajectory at the crime scene, threading a wooden dowel through the bullet hole and noting that it ran diagonally from the passenger's side to the driver's seat, where Morello was sitting. The gunshot, they concluded, had come from off to the side of the van, not from in front.
Crime-scene photos of the dowel in the windshield were given to Judge Perry in an envelope filled with other photos. But Perry never asked any questions about the pictures; apparently he never examined them. Several days after the inquest, New Times presented the judge with copies of the photographs. "Did I see these?" he asked aloud, clearly embarrassed at his inability to recall what should have been vital evidence. (Rosenberg later told New Times he hadn't called attention to the photos because he didn't consider them significant. If the judge was curious, Rosenberg added, he could have asked about them.)
The wound in Andrew Morello's chest was also significant. The coroner determined that the bullet had struck Morello squarely in the chest. In order for the wound to line up with the hole in the windshield, Morello's body would have to have been turned sharply to the right. This, Rosenberg posited, was because Morello had turned to watch his friend jumping into the van as he gunned the gas to run down Russell. He did not tell the judge that Morello's position was also -- and perhaps more logically -- consistent with a driver who had stopped, or who was looking out his back window while driving in reverse.
Likewise, Perry never heard the 911 call Laura Russell made after the shooting. Failing to report that she had fired her gun, Russell simply told the emergency operator that she and her husband had interrupted an auto theft and that her husband was in his car attempting to chase down the van. And Russell didn't mention that the van's driver had tried to run her down -- which if true would be important information to relay to other officers who would have to be cautious in approaching the fleeing suspects.
What Russell did tell the 911 dispatcher seemed at times to contradict the notion that the van's driver was attempting to run her down. At one point she blurted, "They came at us," but she also told the operator, "They kept backing up. We kept trying to get their tag, and they kept backing up."
Rosenberg said after the inquest that he hadn't played the 911 tape for the judge because the call "didn't have anything to do with what happened at the shooting."
George and Andrea Morello were dismayed but not surprised when Judge Perry ruled that the shooting was justified. The judge stated further that, in his opinion, the boys who had accompanied Andrew should be prosecuted for murder under a state law that makes all participants in a crime liable for first-degree murder if anyone is killed during the commission of that crime. The State Attorney's Office quickly followed up on Perry's advice, charging sixteen-year-old Bjorn DiMaio and seventeen-year-old Anthony Vincent with Morello's murder. Both boys eventually pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and were sentenced to three years in prison. (Sixteen-year-old Ralph Scocco, the other accomplice, was granted immunity in return for his testimony.)
The Morellos believe that the most probable scenario to explain the evidence is this: While Andrew Morello was backing toward the Jeep, Laura Russell approached the van from the side, using the parked cars for cover. As a nine-year veteran of the department, they reason, Russell knew better than to stand in the middle of the street directly in front of a vanload of suspects. In her own sworn statement, Russell said that as she approached the van she had her gun sight trained on the driver.
When the van came to a stop alongside the Jeep, one of the boys, Anthony Vincent, opened the van's sliding door, causing the dome light to come on. As that occurred, DiMaio, who had broken into the Jeep and was removing its speakers, opened the Jeep's back door, sounding its alarm. DiMaio then leaped to the van, moving so quickly he literally jumped out of one of his shoes.
Russell stated that she had no idea anyone was inside the Jeep and that the commotion caught her by surprise. The Morellos think that as the dome light came on, the Jeep's alarm blared, and DiMaio fled to the van, the startled off-duty officer gripped the trigger on her 9mm pistol a little too tightly and sent a bullet into Andrew Morello's chest.
If that is what happened, the Morellos contend, and if Laura Russell had admitted it, they would have been able to put Russell's mistake and their son's mistake in perspective instead of spending four years trying to prove that Andrew was not a would-be cop killer who got what he deserved.
The Morellos' last hope was civil court, where no evidence could be hidden or left out.
Their case wound its way through the court system for more than three years. In the meantime, more than a dozen depositions were taken, and experts on both sides attempted to reconstruct the bullet's path. Neil Chonin, the Morellos' attorney, hired a mock jury to hear the evidence in the case. He says none of the people who heard Russell's version of events believed she was telling the truth. After years of frustration, the family was optimistic.
Last year, though, attorneys for Dade County filed a motion to have the case dismissed, on the grounds that as a police officer acting in her official capacity, Laura Russell could not be held liable for the shooting. The so-called qualified immunity defense is designed so that public employees -- such as police officers or elected officials -- cannot be personally sued for making decisions their jobs require. In this case, the county argued, because any police officer facing down a vanload of suspects at night may have made the same split-second decision Russell did, she was entitled to immunity; where the officer was standing and in which direction the vehicle might have been traveling were irrelevant.
Circuit Court Judge John Gordon agreed and dismissed the suit this past summer. The ruling was appealed to the Third District Court of Appeals, where a panel of three judges -- David Gersten, Alan Schwartz, and Thomas Barkdull, Jr. -- heard arguments from both sides. Late last month they issued a ruling affirming Judge Gordon's dismissal of the suit. Because the appeals court did not write a detailed explanation of its decision, Chonin says, an appeal to the Florida Supreme Court will be nearly impossible.
"The case is gone, it's over," says the attorney.
The Morellos learned of the ruling on January 22, Andrea Morello's birthday.
"It was like experiencing a death all over again," she says of the news, which her husband broke to her while she was at work.
"Was she really in fear for her life, or did she just say that to cover her actions?" Joe Morello asks rhetorically. "Now we'll never know, because we were robbed of our day in court. Even if we lost the case, at least we would have had it all come out."
Assistant County Attorney Warren Smith, who successfully represented Russell, says the Morellos did have their day in court -- it just wasn't in front of a jury. He also feels that the county would have prevailed in a trial. While he agrees that the act of breaking into a car shouldn't be a capital offense, he adds, "Realistically, I don't think there would be a lot of sympathy on a jury for someone in a black van in the middle of the night robbing a car stereo."
Smith says the case has taken a tremendous toll on the Russells, as well. The day after the shooting, a shot was fired into the house next door to theirs, an attack police believe was meant for the Russells. No one was ever arrested for that shooting, and the couple eventually moved out of the neighborhood. "They were relieved when they heard about the appeals court decision," says Smith. "This was an awful experience for them." (Laura Russell declined to comment for this story.)
Chonin is concerned about what the ruling portends for the future. "This decision, this case, has the great potential of causing law-enforcement officers to believe they can get away with violating someone's civil rights and that they are not going to be held accountable," he asserts. "Because if they are not going to be held accountable by their own department's internal review, and if they are not going to be held accountable by the State Attorney's Office, and if they are not going to be held accountable by the inquest process, and now they are not going to held accountable in civil court, then who is going to hold these officers accountable? The reality is that the citizen who is abused by a police officer has almost an insurmountable battle in order to receive justice. It's a horror. An absolute horror."
The Morellos, meanwhile, feel utterly lost. They still wonder whether they had been good parents to Andrew. They worry, too, about the damage they may have inflicted on their three other children: Have they been so obsessed with this shooting that they've neglected their other kids? What's wrong with them, they ask, that they can't put Andrew's death behind them?
"I don't even know that this marriage of 25 years will survive," says Andrea Morello, sitting in the kitchen of the family's North Miami home. "We've each been pulled in so many directions."
Not long ago the Morellos bought a house on the Gulf Coast. It's a place, Joe Morello explains, where the family has found a certain measure of peace. "The reason is that it is a place Andrew has never been. So there are no memories of Andrew there."
Then his thoughts return to the court case. "It's so hard to believe there aren't any more options."
The Morellos, however, may still have a court appearance ahead of them. Dade County has filed a motion demanding that Andrew Morello's estate and his family repay the county's costs of representing Laura Russell in their lawsuit.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Miami New Times' biggest stories.