Israel Hernandez, AKA Reefa
Israel Hernandez, AKA Reefa
Courtesy of Israel Hernandez's family

After Miami Beach Pays Only $100K After Tasering Teen to Death, a Look Back on the Case

After evading criminal consequences for fatally tasering an 18-year-old skateboarder, the City of Miami Beach will pay a comparatively paltry $100,000 to settle the final wrongful-death lawsuit stemming from the case. This past Friday, the Florida Bulldog reported that the city has finally settled a suit filed by Israel "Reefa" Hernandez-Llach's parents — Israel Hernandez Bandera and Jacqueline Luz-Llachs — and sister, Offir Hernandez-Llachs.

For outside observers watching the case, it's astounding more wasn't done to remedy what happened to Hernandez. The 18-year-old was caught tagging his name on a wall already plastered with graffiti — but when cops arrived, Hernandez ran, police chased him, and a cop's Taser ended the teen's life. Police-reform activists have rightfully asked what public benefit there was to tasering a kid after scaring him off from tagging some graffiti on a wall. Four years later, the facts surrounding Hernandez's death are just as incomprehensible:

1. The police report from the night Hernandez dies paints his last few hours as "panicked and painful:"

That's what can be gathered from Miami Beach Police's report about their pursuit of the 18-year-old skater and artist. Hernandez, whose nickname was "Reefa," led cops on a chase through several blocks of North Beach, frantically scrambling over fences and falling onto cars, before cops fatally Tasered him.

The police report is written by Officer Thomas Lincoln, one of more than half a dozen cops involved in the chase.

Lincoln writes that while other officers pursued Hernandez on foot, he followed him in his car. And when the other cops had lost the lithe teenager, it was Lincoln who spotted him crossing the street.

"I pulled up along side of the subject at 6940 Harding Avenue," Lincoln says in the report. "I attempted to make contact with the subject [but he] ignored me and ran into the building."

Hernandez then tried to vault over a white fence at the back of the property but fell. He tried again and made it, slipping on the fence and crashing hard onto the hood of an old gray Ford Mustang.

But for all of the detail in the report, it doesn't shed any light on why cops felt like they had to taser the scrawny teenager.

2. The graffito that got Hernandez killed is revealed — and it's just a tiny letter "R" on an already-dilapidated wall.

Here's the tiny graffito that got Israel Hernandez, AKA Reefa, killed.
Here's the tiny graffito that got Israel Hernandez, AKA Reefa, killed.
Michael E. Miller

3. Protests swell, and the family sues.

Reefa's family organized rallies to demand answers about the incident, and on March 6 — seven months to the day after his death — State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle admitted the teen had, in fact, been Tasered to death.

Five months later, Reefa's autopsy results still haven't been released. Also pending are investigations by Miami Beach PD and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

On May 28, Offir Hernandez filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the City of Miami Beach over her brother's death.

4. The Miami-Dade County Medical Examiner's Office confirms the Taser killed Reefa.

Seven months after Israel "Reefa" Hernandez was killed by Miami Beach cops, authorities finally announced what his family knew all along: The teen died from being hit with a Taser. The findings, which were disclosed last week by the Miami-Dade Medical Examiner's Office, contradict both news reports and claims by Taser that its device isn't lethal.

"Israel Hernandez Jr. was intentionally Tasered to death," said Jorge Estomba, speaking on behalf of the Hernandez family. "Rumors about an accident or drugs are false."

In September, seven weeks after New Times broke the story of Hernandez's death, the Miami Herald published an article suggesting the teen had died of "excited delirium," a controversial diagnosis often linked to mental disease or hard drug use. The newspaper also quoted Miami-Dade Police Benevolent Association President John Rivera as saying, "The Taser doesn't kill these people... It's the drugs they take."

But last week's announcement revealed Reefa didn't die from drugs or excited delirium. Rather, he died from heart failure caused by "energy device discharge." The finding was the first of its kind in Florida. It was also vindication for the Hernandez family, which has long insisted Reefa's demise was no fault of his own. But the Hernandez family is still outraged over the report. That's because Associate Medical Examiner Mark Shuman also determined the death was "accidental."

5. After a yearlong New Times investigation into Taser abuse by Miami cops, parent company Taser International (now known as Axon) denies there's anything wrong with its products:

Q: One case that I mention in my article is the August 6, 2013 death of 18-year-old Israel Hernandez in Miami Beach. Earlier this year, his death was the first in Florida to be officially attributed to Taser-use by a medical examiner. Does Taser admit that, in rare cases, its products can be lethal?

A: Taser International is always concerned when a death tragically occurs in custody and mourns the loss of a life. We do not comment, however, on an unfortunate death without having been provided any factual documentation by the medical examiner or the opportunity to review the autopsy report.

6. Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle predictably declines to prosecute the cops who killed him:

After reviewing the case for well over a year, State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle's office announced today that it would not be able to get a jury to convict Officer Mercado of any crime, and will not bring charges. Despite the high levels of public outrage over the case, the result is not surprising. No police officer in Florida has been criminally charged for an on-duty shooting since 1989, let alone for an on-duty Tasering.

"After the medical examiner determined that Israel Hernandez-Llach's death was accidental, it left little legal room to pursue any possible criminal charges," said Rundle in a statement. "Our extensive investigation determined that the sad tragedy of this situation is that no one involved intended or anticipated any serious injury occurring to this young man." 

7. After the ordeal, Miami Beach changed its Taser policy:

Today, after a lengthy review, Miami Beach PD released a new set of rules for using the weapons. Among the changes, MBPD now encourages officers to avoid hitting suspects directly in the chest.

"Target preferred deployment areas when possible. The recommended points of aim are the rear torso below the neck area; and, front torso lower center of mass (below the chest or heart area)," the new policy reads.

Previously, MBPD's policy only discouraged cops from hitting suspects in the eyes, face or groin.

MBPD is also set to deploy a new version of the electronic weapon starting in November. The force spent just shy of $500,000 on 345 new Taser "X-2 Smart" devices; the new weapons are supposed to improve safety by incapacitating suspects with smaller amounts of electricity, and with a double-laser sight to give officers better aim. 

8. A video released in 2016 suggests cops chased Hernandez with their guns drawn:

Israel Hernandez sprinted through dark alleys, scrambled over fences and fell onto cars, leading cops on a frantic chase after being caught tagging an abandoned McDonald's in Miami Beach. The early-morning pursuit ended with the 18-year-old artist known as Reefa slumped over on the street, his heart stopped cold after a Taser blast to the chest from Officer Jorge Mercado.

Three years after Reefa's death, his family now believes they know why he ran from the cops. New video footage shows the scrawny teen hustling through an alleyway, tailed by two officers carrying what the family believes are drawn guns.

9. Remember how Taser declined to comment on Hernandez's death? A 2017 Reuters investigation revealed Taser International collaborated with University of Miami Professor Deborah Mash, an academic frequently paid to defend the company from wrongdoing as an expert witness:

In bold letters, marked “TIMELY AND URGENT,” the dispatch advised Miami’s medical examiner to send the teen’s brain tissue for testing to Deborah Mash, a University of Miami medical researcher. It did not mention Mash had been paid by Taser to testify on its behalf in lawsuits against the company.

Taser’s email to investigators is a telling snapshot of how the company blurs the lines between its corporate interests, police affairs and scientific research, often enmeshing itself in investigations where its stun guns may be implicated in deaths.

“From the minute they find out someone dies, they’re doing everything they can behind the scenes to set up” a legal defense “so the case goes away,” said lawyer Todd Falzone, representing the Hernandez-Llach family in a liability suit.

For more than a decade, Taser has defended its signature weapon by leveraging close ties with police and other professionals, court records show. It has spent millions of dollars commissioning research on its weapons, much of it backing the company’s contention that its stun guns are blameless in deaths or injuries. It regularly hires medical and scientific experts who vouch for the safety of the electroshock devices in court or in published studies. And it cultivates ties with medical examiners, the professionals who decide whether or not a Taser shock is to blame in a fatality.

The result is a thicket of intersecting relationships among police, coroners and a wide network of scientists the company taps, a Reuters examination of hundreds of wrongful death lawsuits and interviews with lawyers for both plaintiffs and police found.

Taser’s links to these experts are not always clear.

In the Hernandez-Llach case, Miami-Dade County Associate Medical Examiner Mark Shuman told Reuters he was unaware of the prior relationship between Taser and Miami scientist Mash when he sent the teen’s brain tissue to her lab for tests. Taser paid Mash around $24,000 for expert testimony in eight lawsuits filed from 2005 to 2009, court records show.

10. And remember the term "excited delirium," which cops and the police union originally used to explain how Hernandez died? A New Times investigation in 2010 revealed that Deborah Mash at UM was getting paid to blame Taser deaths on "excited delirium" — even though it's not a real medical concept.

While Miami-Dade seems to be far outpacing more populated counties throughout the nation in the number of excited delirium cases, critics from the American Civil Liberties Union and the families of victims believe there's a reason the syndrome resembles overwrought fiction: because it is.

The syndrome is not listed in textbooks or recognized by the American Medical Association or the American Psychiatric Association. It has been met with skepticism as it has spread to the United Kingdom and Canada: A police psychologist in Canada recently made headlines when he testified that excited delirium is a "mythical... dubious disorder" used to justify the use of stun guns, and the Canadian Medical Association Journal has termed it a "pop culture phenomenon."

It is police, not excited delirium, causing at least some of the deaths, critics charge. Of 35 excited delirium death reports the Miami-Dade medical examiner's office made available to New Times, 23 of the subjects died after struggling with police officers. Besides the five tasing incidents, they were hogtied, headlocked, and pepper-sprayed. All were unarmed.

"It's overused by medical examiners across the country to hide brutal murders by law enforcement," says Ronald J. Kurpiers, an attorney who recently challenged the diagnosis in a U.S. Supreme Court lawsuit against West Palm Beach Police officers. "It's bullshit."

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