Prosecutor: 11 Miami officers thought they were above the law


Published: Wednesday, January 22, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 22, 2003 at 1:12 a.m.

MIAMI - Eleven Miami police officers who saw themselves as "untouchable" planted guns at four police shootings or lied about it, a prosecutor said Tuesday at their trial on federal corruption charges.

Prosecutor Curtis Miner said the defendants saw themselves "as being above the law" when they covered up their involvement in the shootings that left three men dead and a fourth wounded in the 1990s.

Miner told jurors in opening statements that they won't be asked to decide whether the shootings were justified but must determine whether the officers later reached an understanding to obstruct justice by covering up misconduct.

"They were part of a clique that saw themselves as different from other officers on the force. They saw themselves as untouchable," Miner said. The case is "about cops who went too far, who crossed the line between what is right and what is wrong."

Defense attorney William Matthewman called the conspiracy case "a flawed, flawed prosecution" and asked jurors to reject "any so-called super-duper" plot by officers assigned to special street-crime units.

Defense attorney Manuel Casabielle drew a rebuke from the judge when he said: "The government's allegations are ridiculous. They border on the insane."

Only one of the officers is tied to all four shootings from late 1995 to mid-1997, when the city was fighting bad publicity internationally about violent tourist robberies. Each defendant could face 10 years in prison if convicted.

The police scandal is the city's worst since the 1980s, when rogue officers stole cocaine from drug dealers to resell. Community outrage over dozens of officer-involved shootings has led to a chief's resignation, policy changes and the creation of a civilian shooting review board with subpoena powers.

The shootings in question include the slayings of two men who robbed tourists and jumped off an overpass to get away from police; the 120-shot SWAT-team killing of a 72-year-old man described by Matthewman as "an armed drug dealer;" the wounding of a drunken homeless man carrying a Walkman; and a foot chase survived by a purse-snatching suspect.

In all cases, prosecutors say weapons were planted near the victims, including two handguns seized in earlier arrests but never booked as evidence in the police property room. The defense contends police reports of armed suspects were correct in each case.

The key prosecution witnesses are two officers who retired and pleaded guilty to conspiracy in exchange for leniency. Defense attorney Harry Solomon said they "cut a deal to save their own souls."

Defense attorney Richard Sharpstein said both officers are perjurers because they either lied before or after they began cooperating with prosecutors.

Solomon told jurors, "There was no conspiracy in this case at all by anybody."

Relatives of the defendants filled more than a third of the packed courtroom. A community group organized after Miami's first police-related riot issued a call for justice to be done.

The first witness was to be called Wednesday. The trial is expected to last three to five months.

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