Why Did Miami's Prosecutor Clear Guard Now Facing Federal Charges in Fatal Juvenile Beating?

Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle
Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle Miami-Dade County State Attorney's Office
A federal grand jury today unsealed multiple criminal charges against Antwan Johnson, a guard accused of encouraging a group of young inmates to beat up 17-year-old Elord Revolte, a detainee at a juvenile facility. As first reported in the Miami Herald's Pulitzer-nominated investigative series Fight Club, Revolte died August 31, 2015, from what appear to be injuries sustained during the beating.

Curiously, Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle's office first investigated this fight and in January 2017 claimed there wasn't enough evidence to charge Johnson with a crime. Rundle's office wrote in a final memo that her investigators found Johnson was actually trying to break up the fight.

But that finding flies in the face of the evidence cited in the federal indictment unsealed today. The feds say Johnson actually hid in a closet during the beating and then rewarded the kids who beat Revolte to death by distributing snacks and letting them watch TV outside of their cells. The feds even claim Johnson fist-bumped the inmate who initially began attacking Revolte.

All of those details were missing from Rundle's 2017 account of the fatal fight. Rundle's spokesperson, Ed Griffith, did not immediately respond to a message asking why the state and federal accounts of the same beating appear to be so different.

The discrepancy between the two reports is jarring and raises serious questions about Rundle's investigation. During her 25-year tenure, she has never charged an on-duty police officer for killing a person, and her office neglected to charge four prison guards who oversaw the death of Darren Rainey, a schizophrenic inmate who many witnesses say was scalded to death with near-boiling-hot water as punishment for defecating in his cell.

After Rundle released the closeout memorandums in the Rainey case, the Herald's Julie Brown poked numerous holes in reports from Rundle and county medical examiner Emma Lew. Outside medical examiners who spoke to the Herald raised questions about the state's version of events. Rundle's decision upset local Democratic activists so much that the Miami-Dade County Democratic Executive Committee — Rundle's own political party — asked her to resign. She ignored that request.

The latest case, involving Revolte, was exposed by Herald reporters Carol Marbin-Miller and Audra D.S. Burch in a series that showed guards across Florida giving juvenile detainees incentives to attack other kids. Marbin-Miller and Burch reported that the practice of giving snack cakes to inmates as rewards for beating others is apparently so common it's referred to as "honey-bunning."

As part of the investigative series, the Herald detailed the beating that likely led to Revolte's death at the Miami-Dade Regional Juvenile Detention Center (JDC) and also included one clip of the attack:

The Herald series noted no one had been charged in relation to the ambush.

Rundle initially referred the case to two separate units: One set of assistant state attorneys looked into whether any nurses, inmates, or others were culpable in Revolte's death. The public corruption unit, meanwhile, investigated whether any of the guards could be charged with crimes.

In its closeout memo completed 17 months after Revolte's death, Rundle's office admitted there was evidence that guards were ordering inmates to attack other kids — but claimed there wasn't enough evidence to charge Johnson.

State prosecutors said only one anonymous inmate accused Johnson of ordering the attack. Miami-Dade County Police attempted to interview 19 other detainees, but Rundle's office said it turned up no other evidence substantiating claims that the attack was "verbally ordered by a JDC detention officer." Instead, Rundle's office said the anonymous youth who initiated the attack claimed he did so because he and Revolte had fought once in the past.

Surveillance video also cleared Johnson of wrongdoing, state prosecutors said. "Johnson's physical reaction to the attack on Revolte, as captured on the surveillance video, appears consistent with that of a person attempting to stop an attack, not encourage it," the closeout reads.

But the federal indictment released today paints a markedly different description of Johnson's "physical reaction" to the attack. According to federal prosecutors, Johnson "operated a bounty system in order to help ensure obedience and officer respect." The feds claim Johnson used "coded language," including the phrase "off my face," to order other youth inmates to attack Revolte and then rewarded the kids for doing so. The indictment even says Johnson asked the inmates to delay jumping Revolte until a certain time August 30, 2015, and then hid in a closet, likely to pretend he didn't know what was happening.

"Antwan Lenard Johnson directed juveniles to delay the attack on [Revolte] until they all returned to Module 9," the indictment reads. "Upon returning to and entering Module 9 with the juveniles, [Johnson] promptly walked toward and into a supply closet, which was away from his direct view of [Revolte] and the other juveniles. ln and around this same time, a juvenile punched [Revolte] in the face as [Revolte] attempted to sit down in a chair. Numerous other juveniles immediately joined the attack and punched and kicked [Revolte], including while [Revolte] was lying on the ground."

The federal indictment says that after the beating ended, the other inmates were placed in their cells. But Johnson allegedly waited only four minutes after Revolte was taken out of the module to let the kids back out and let them watch TV as an alleged reward for the attack. Johnson also allegedly made sure the kids involved in the beating received snacks later.

"In and around this same time, Antwan Lenard Johnson also acknowledged and bumped fists together with the juvenile who initiated the attack" on Revolte, the indictment reads.

Like the Rainey case, Revolte's death raises questions about the ways Rundle's office uses reports from the Miami-Dade County Medical Examiner's Office. Despite the fact that Revolte died less than 24 hours after he was beaten, county medical examiner Sean Hurst said that although the teen "most likely" died from injuries sustained during the attack, Hurst could not rule out that one of Revolte's veins might have been damaged during a separate incident.

Because of this ruling, Rundle's office said it was impossible to know whether Revolte died from being jumped by fellow inmates.

The feds, though, apparently had no hesitation about what killed Revolte. In Johnson's indictment, they say the attack that Johnson encouraged "resulted in [Revolte's] death."

Johnson has been federally charged with one count of deprivation of civil rights and one count of conspiracy to deprive someone of his or her civil rights.
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Jerry Iannelli is a former staff writer for Miami New Times from 2015 to March 2020. He graduated with honors from Temple University. He then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.

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