By Catherine Wilson, The Associated Press
MIAMI (AP) -- Jurors began deliberating charges Thursday that three
Miami police officers joined a cover-up after guns were allegedly
planted beside two fleeing tourist robbers shot to death in a hail of
Attorneys on both sides pleaded with jurors to use their common sense
in a retrial with changing recollections eight years later and two
officers who pleaded guilty in exchange for reduced sentences.
Lt. Israel Gonzalez and Officer Jorge Garcia could face up to 10
years in prison on charges of perjury to a grand jury, obstruction of
justice for alleged lies in sworn depositions and conspiracy. Sgt.
Jose Quintero could face up to five years if convicted of conspiracy
for allegedly planting one of the guns.
The case was the first of four police shootings covered by federal
charges that 13 officers plotted to cover up guns planted near
suspects from 1995 to 1997. Three men were killed, and one was
The jury doesn't know that 11 officers went to trial in the larger
case, and the first jury deadlocked nearly a year ago on the three
officers being retried. Four other officers were acquitted, three
were convicted in two of the other shootings, and one faces a retrial
The 3 1/2-week retrial covered the most dramatic gunfire. Police
watched as a robber used a grapefruit-sized rock to smash a car
window and grab an Ecuadorean tourist's purse. The four robbers fled
in a car, smashed into a police car and bailed out with their car
One was arrested, another got away, and Antonio Young and Derrick
Wiltshire took their chances jumping 20 feet off a highway overpass
to get away from police. Young would die right below, and Wiltshire
fell mortally wounded in an alley Nov. 7, 1995.
The robbers "had no guns in their hands that night," prosecutor
Curtis Miner told jurors. "These are street cops who are involved in
the dirty business of shooting down robbers, planting guns and coming
up with a story the next day."
Officers John Mervolion and Bill Hames initially said they saw
dark-colored guns in the men's right hands. But they now say Hames
shared a cover story with the five officers who fired that night over
lunch at a barbecue restaurant the next day.
The defense attacked the pair as inconsistent liars who are trying to
keep their pensions after retiring under clouds: Hames over an
alcoholic blackout when he pulled a gun on a bus driver and Mervolion
after a shoplifting arrest.
"This case, make no mistake about it, is built on the backs of
Mervolion and Hames," said Sam Rabin, Quintero's attorney. "Don't
convict them on the words of those liars."
Miner argued Mervolion and Hames wouldn't lie to put themselves in
prison when they could stick to their stories and live out their
Rabin also accused prosecutors of tampering with witnesses by trying
to mold their testimony and getting them to change their testimony to
fit physical evidence.
Jurors quickly returned with three questions about whether they could
draw any conclusions about the lack of testimony by Officers Art
Beguiristain and Jose Aguero. Both were convicted in the first trial.
Beguiristain was accused of planting the other gun, and Aguero fired
the most shots, even pausing to reload.
The recovered guns had no fingerprints, something an expert said
happens 75 percent of the time. One was loaded with the wrong
ammunition. Neither had been fired.
Both robbers were shot in the back in shootings justified under a
state law allowing police to shoot at unarmed fleeing felons.
The officers belonged to elite plainclothes units when the department
was under international pressure to halt a string of deadly tourist
robberies. Charges in the retrial cover only the I-395 events.
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The scandal over the shootings rocked the department and scarred its
image, ushering in a new police chief, new shooting policies and a
civilian review board.