Justice Undone: Part 3

Sixteen-year-old Bjorn DiMaio and seventeen-year-old Anthony Vincent have not killed anyone, but this Monday, June 15, they are scheduled to stand trial on second-degree murder charges. If convicted, the teen-agers could face seven to twelve years in prison. Their unusual predicament is only one aspect of the controversy that continues to shroud the death of their friend Andrew Morello.

Morello, a sixteen-year-old high school student from North Miami, was shot to death in the wee hours of February 1 by off-duty Metro-Dade police officer Laura Russell. He and three friends, including DiMaio and Vincent, were in the process of burglarizing an automobile when Russell confronted them in front of her home. The officer claimed she shot in self-defense as Morello attempted to run her down with his father's van. Morello's friends, however, say he was driving the van in reverse, away from Russell, when he was shot. (All of the boys were unarmed.)

Dade State Attorney Janet Reno subsequently requested an inquest, to determine whether Russell's shooting was illegal. On March 30, County Court Judge Morton Perry ruled that Russell was justified in shooting Morello, clearing the way for Reno to bring murder charges against DiMaio and Vincent. (Under Florida law, if a person dies while committing a felony, accomplices in the crime can be charged with homicide.)

A New Times investigation of the inquest, however, raised doubts about its thoroughness and revealed that critical evidence had not been submitted to Judge Perry. In light of the criticism, Reno has agreed to reopen the inquest to introduce any relevant evidence Morello's family believes was withheld, a decision that will ultimately place prosecutors in the unusual position of having to appear in one courtroom as neutral parties presenting impartial evidence at an inquest, while appearing in another courtroom arguing that DiMaio and Vincent are guilty of murder.

The defense attorney for one of the accused teen-agers says this represents an intolerable conflict of interest for Reno's office. "It just smells," says assistant public defender Michael Petit, who represents Bjorn DiMaio. "I find it a little bit distressing." One reason for concern, Petit explains, is that Reno's office now has a vested interest in seeing that the results of the inquest remain unchanged. If Judge Perry, after reviewing new inquest evidence, were to find that Laura Russell acted illegally, the prosecutors' murder case against DiMaio and Vincent would be undermined.

"I don't see where there's a conflict," Reno counters. "If anything comes up that indicates the charges against the boys should be dropped, we would drop them immediately. Our whole obligation is to get to the truth, and we are going to continue to do that in all cases."

"If that was her interest," says Andrew's father, Joe Morello, "she would have already gotten to the truth with all of the resources she had." Instead, Andrew's parents claim, Reno's office has deliberately ignored evidence that contradicted Laura Russell's sworn testimony. The Morellos, who are also suing Russell, the City of Miami, and Dade County for their son's death, hope to meet with Reno this week to discuss the evidence they want Judge Perry to review.

Chief among that evidence is the trajectory of the lethal bullet. Andrew Morello was struck in the chest as he sat in the driver's seat, but the bullet passed through the windshield in the lower corner of the passenger's side, an indication that Russell could not have been standing in front of the van, as she claimed. And if she was standing off to the side, how could Morello have been driving directly toward her, threatening her life? The answer to that question is crucial in determining whether Russell had a legitimate reason to fire her weapon. (Crime scene technicians who tracked the angle of the bullet from the side of the van were not called as witnesses at the original inquest.)

Another piece of evidece withheld from Judge Perry was the tape recording of Russell's call to 911 shortly after the shooting. The officer never reported firing her gun and told the emergency operator that the van "kept backing up."

At a reopened hearing (no date has been set) Perry could affirm his ruling in favor of Russell; he could change his opinion; or he could demand an entirely new inquest. Reno also has the authority to call for a new inquest.

Defense attorney Petit favors the last option: beginning anew. "I don't think you can say, `Hey, let's throw this in,' and then hope people will have confidence in the process," he contends, adding that he believes Reno should consider appointing a special prosecutor from outside her office to manage the case.

Although Bjorn DiMaio and Anthony Vincent will appear in court this Monday, it is likely the trial will be postponed while defense attorneys continue their preparations. One oddity they will ponder is the absence of Laura Russell's name from the list of witnesses prosecutors plan to call during the trial. (Russell also declined to testify at the March 30 inquest.)

"Even though the inquest held that she shouldn't be charged," Petit says of Russell, "I still think there is a very real possibility that she should be. Someone should be charged. If the State Attorney's Office can in good faith charge William Lozano with manslaughter, I think in this particular case it is even more warranted.

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Jim DeFede
Contact: Jim DeFede