Four Miami Police Officers Convicted of Corruption


MIAMI (AP) -- In the biggest Miami police scandal in a generation, a federal jury convicted four officers of corruption Wednesday for planting a gun on an unarmed homeless man and lying about it to protect their colleagues.

The officers, all assigned to elite undercover teams, were charged after four police shootings in the mid-1990s left three people dead and another wounded. One of the victims, an elderly drug suspect, died in a hail of more than 100 bullets.

The police ruled all the shootings justified and state prosecutors declined to bring charges, a point made repeatedly by defense lawyers during the 11-week trial.

Federal prosecutors, however, said the defendants thought they were "untouchable" and they called two retired officers who said a cover story was cooked up one day over lunch a day after one shooting.

A sentencing date was not immediately set.

Outrage over police shootings led to the chief's resignation last November, policy changes, the creation of a civilian review board and millions of dollars paid out to settle lawsuits. But the trial was closely watched to see whether any officers would actually be convicted.

The shootings happened between 1995 and 1997, a time when Miami was under international pressure to crack down on roving gangs of armed robbers preying on tourists.

It was the city's worst police scandal since the 1980s, when rogue cops peddled cocaine they stole from drug traffickers. In that case, more than 100 officers were arrested, fired or disciplined.

This time, prosecutors said the defendants -- all drug, robbery and SWAT officers -- felt they were "above the law."

The men were charged with conspiracy to obstruct justice for allegedly plotting to plant guns on unarmed suspects, misleading investigators and lying under oath to protect each other.

The four officers were convicted of obstruction and conspiracy in the 1997 shooting of a Daniel Hoban, a homeless alcoholic. Hoban was wounded in the leg by defendant Jorge Castello, who thought the man's Walkman was a gun being used in a robbery.

Castello and Officer Jesse Aguero were convicted of conspiracy and obstruction for planting a .45-caliber handgun near Hoban. Officers Art Beguiristain and Oscar Ronda were convicted for their rolls in the cover-up.

All the officers were acquitted of wrongdoing in a shooting involving a 72-year-old drug suspect who was killed in a barrage of 123 bullets as his 14-year-old great-granddaughter crouched feet away on their bathroom floor. The girl was not wounded and later won a $2.5 million settlement from the city.

Five of the officers were also acquitted of covering up the shooting deaths of two robbers gunned down after they made a dramatic leap from a highway overpass while fleeing police. In another incident resulting in acquittals, one of the officers fired three shots at a purse-snatching suspect, missing each time.

'Code of silence' broken

None of the defendants took the witness stand, but two other officers broke the police "code of silence" and testified against them in hopes of leniency on the same conspiracy charge. Among other things, the two men described a lunch meeting at which the officers mapped out a cover story after the killings of the two purse thieves.

The government also produced circumstantial evidence to support the idea of an unspoken pact among the officers to cover for each other.

"That was the remedy. That was the way of doing business in bad shootings," prosecutor Allan Kaiser said as the trial wrapped up.

Defense attorneys dismissed the prosecution theory as ridiculous and unproven.

They said the retired officers, John Mervolion and Bill Hames, were testifying in desperation to get light sentences and keep their pensions. They pointed out that Hames was an alcoholic who quit the force after holding a gun on a bus driver in an off-duty drunken blackout.

And even though prosecutors asked the jury to focus on what happened after the shootings, the defense said all of them were legitimate.

"The justifiable use of force and deadly force laws have been in existence for years," attorney Richard Sharpstein said. "All of these shootings were well within those parameters."

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

The trial began on the same day the city installed a new police chief, former Philadelphia Chief John Timoney, who was hired to turn around the scandal-plagued department.

Timoney replaced Raul Martinez, who led the city's shooting review board for five years before becoming chief in 2000. Martinez quit after a series of stories in The Miami Herald questioned review board rulings that called most police shootings justified.

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