The basic facts seemed crystal clear in the shooting of Michael Gavins. The former college football star was unarmed when an officer in South Miami shot him in the back last November. Both Gavins and an attorney who happened to witness the traffic stop say his hands were in the air when he was shot.
But Miami-Dade prosecutors have now decided not to charge the officer, Aryo Rezaie. Why? Because of a small amount of pot later found in Gavins' pants and what they say were inconsistent answers about when he raised his hands.
Prosecutors now contend that, in fact, he was stuffing the weed into his pants instead of raising his hands when the officer commanded him to do so. "A reasonable officer could believe that Mr. Gavins was about to retrieve a firearm or weapon from his person," writes Alejandra Lopez, an assistant state attorney who prepared a close-out memo on the case.
But Gavins' attorney says that's nonsense. "It's a total distortion of the facts," Paul Layne says. "He didn't make any move toward that officer. And at the time of the actual shooting, his hands were up. It's a disgusting decision not to charge this officer."
Gavins, who played defensive line at South Miami High and the University of Missouri, was back in his hometown to watch a Dolphins game with friends November 15. He was on his way to get a hamburger at Shake Shack when Officer Rezaie pulled him over, allegedly for windows tinted too dark.
Here's how Gavins described the encounter to New Times:
As Gavins stood with his hands on the hood of the cruiser, one of the cops — a third-year officer named Aryo Rezaie — became agitated. "Suddenly, I hear, 'Don't move!' I'm like, 'You talking to me?'" Gavins recalls. "I'm like, 'Sir, I don't have any weapons. I'm not resisting. Please!'"
A loud pop, a searing pain, and suddenly Gavins found himself prone on South Dixie Highway as traffic whizzed past. He'd been shot. He watched a crimson stain grow on his chest. "I'm losing blood, getting cold, I think I'm gonna die," Gavins recalls. "I'm thinking, For what? I shoulda stayed home. I went to see my family and friends, and he shot me."
Gavins' account had backup. John Schulte, a Coral Gables attorney, was at a nearby gas station when Gavins was ordered from the car. Schulte told investigators he saw Gavins with his hands in the air when Rezaie shot.
But prosecutors say Gavins' story didn't hold up in interviews. They say he got out of the car with his registration papers and a small bag of marijuana. And when Reziae ordered him to put his hands up, he instead tried to hide the pot in his pants.
As for Schulte, prosecutors say, he was searching for a lost cell phone in his car as he watched the traffic stop and missed the exact moment of the shooting.
Layne blasts those findings, though. "Schulte saw every meaningful moment of this shooting," Gavins' attorney says.
As for the marijuana, Layne says the officer's story doesn't hold up and notes that the pot was found only much later.
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"No marijuana was discovered by the police at all. Some worker at the hospital found enough in Gavins' clothes to be worth a $100 fine," he says.
The state attorney's decision carries on a long streak in Miami-Dade, where no officer has been criminally charged for an on-duty shooting since 1989. "This state attorney has a long reputation of not charging officers, even in cases like this when they should have been charged," Layne says. "That's why we wanted a grand jury to hear this case in the first place."
Layne says that Gavins still plans to file a civil lawsuit over the case and that his life has been upended by the shooting. He lost his job as a security guard and still suffers nightmares and physical pain, the attorney says.
"They're responsible for this, and we'll continue to pursue justice for Michael," he says.