Justice Undone: Part 2

Dade State Attorney Janet Reno, acknowledging that her office made mistakes in the way it handled the investigation of a North Miami teen-ager's death, says she will present to the courts any information withheld from last month's inquest.

Andrew Morello was shot to death February 1 by off-duty Metro-Dade police officer Laura Russell after she and her husband, George Russell, an off-duty Miami police officer, discovered the sixteen-year-old boy and three friends breaking into a neighbor's car. Laura Russell said she was forced to shoot the unarmed teen in self-defense because he tried to run her down with his van. The other three boys said Morello was backing away from the officer when she fired. At a March 30 inquest, County Court Judge Morton Perry ruled the shooting justified, based on the evidence he had before him.

Reno admitted last week that Assistant State Attorney Gary Rosenberg was wrong to withhold from the judge a recording of the 911 emergency call in which Laura Russell told an operator: "They kept backing up. We kept trying to get their tag, and they kept backing up." The taped call also indicates that Russell failed to report she had fired her weapon, and contradicts a sworn statement she gave six weeks later. In her statement to investigators, Russell claimed to have told the emergency operator that the van had tried to kill her and her husband. The 911 tape shows she did not make such a statement.

In addition to the 911 tapes, Reno's office also either withheld or downplayed other evidence that would have been essential to a full and fair inquest. Prosecutor Rosenberg, for example, did not submit for examination the windshield from the van; the single bullet hole in the glass indicated that it would have been impossible for Russell to have been directly in front of the van, as she had claimed, when she fired. To have hit Morello with a bullet fired through the windshield's lower corner on the passenger's side, Russell would have to have been standing to the side of the van. Presumably that would cast doubt on her self-defense claim that Morello was heading straight at her and was about to run her down.

The State Attorney's Office also did not introduce testimony from crime scene technicians who inspected the van and determined the bullet was fired from the side. (The Morello family has offered to present the van itself so court officials could see for themselves that Russell's version of events demands closer scrutiny.)

The failure of Reno's office to present this information, which has been available for several months, has led Andrew Morello's family to believe that prosecutors are only interested in protecting Laura Russell. "I'm sure the Morello family is very concerned," Reno says, "and as I told Mrs. Morello, if she has any additional new information, concerns, or doubts, to please let me know and I'm happy to review it and consider it and try to present it. We will continue to follow any leads and pursue any avenue that would lead to a full and appropriate disposition of the case. If there is any question about the windshield, if it would be helpful in terms of having full confidence in the process, then the windshield should be made part of the public record."

But Reno also says she can't recall ever reopening an inquest, or calling for a second inquest, after a police officer killed someone; although she has the power to do so, the state attorney has stopped short of requesting a new inquest in the Morello case. Instead, she says she will offer to Judge Perry any evidence not presented by her office. What Perry might do is unclear. After the inquest, he said the case was out of his hands.

"If he did not want to consider it," Reno says of Perry, "we would ask him whether he wanted another judge to consider it, and make sure it was all a matter of public record and a part of any decision. If Judge Perry does not want to reopen the inquest and consider all the new evidence, and he thought it should be presented, then we would present it to whatever judge he determines should continue the inquest."

The Morello family's concerns, however, extend beyond the inquest itself. They also question the thoroughness of the police probe into their son's death. Although the shooting took place in the City of North Miami, Metro-Dade police officials immediately took control of the investigation of their colleague. Detectives waited six weeks before questioning Laura Russell under oath, and when she finally gave her sworn statement, homicide Det. Steve Parr interviewed her for only 24 minutes and failed to challenge, or even note, any of the inconsistencies in her testimony.

Since publication of an article about the Morello inquest in last week's New Times, Judge Morton Perry has refused to answer any questions about the case. He says he was not upset by what was written regarding the inquest or his handling of it. What has angered the judge is that New Times quoted him as having used two profane words.


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