By Catherine Wilson, The Associated Press
MIAMI (AP) - Two retired Miami police officers whose testimony helped convict seven other officers were placed on probation Wednesday for their parts in cover-ups after guns were planted at the scenes of four police shootings.
William Hames and John Mervolion pleaded guilty to conspiracy to obstruct justice in the biggest scandal to hit their department in a generation. No white knights, Hames and Mervolion retired under clouds and turned against fellow officers in hopes of saving their pensions.
Federal prosecutors charged corrupt undercover officers planted guns on the unarmed victims of four police shootings, and their police buddies covered it up four times from 1995 to 1997. Three men were killed and one was wounded. Four officers involved in the SWAT killing of an elderly drug suspect were acquitted.
Hames, 56, and Mervolion, 49, faced up to five years in prison but asked for the most lenient sentences because of their decisions to cooperate before other officers were indicted and their stressful appearances for withering defense questioning in two high-profile trials.
At a "huge personal sacrifice," the officers broke the "blue code of silence" as they walked the juries along some of Miami's seedier streets, where the line blurred between good and bad, the men's attorneys said.
U.S. District Judge Alan Gold placed the pair on probation for three years, ordered them to perform 250 hours of community service each and wished them luck.
Outside court, Hames said the case has been financially and emotionally trying, and he expressed regret about taking so long to come forward.
"Police officers in the line of duty ... build a camaraderie to shared danger that surpasses almost anything you can understand," he said. He wrestled for weeks when "deciding who was going to get my loyalty: the department or my friends."
Walking out of court, Mervolion said, "I'm ready to move on with my life."
Their attorney, Jon Rosenthal, said, "These men ultimately did the right thing."
Prosecutor Allan Kaiser, who made the deals with the two officers and prosecuted the first trial, said they were sentenced as they should have been.
Hames testified that he concocted a story over a barbecue lunch to cover the "stupid" planting of guns after the shooting deaths of two fleeing tourist robbers, who jumped off a highway overpass in futile escape attempts.
He is an alcoholic who was allowed to quit the force after holding a gun on a bus driver in a drunken blackout and after he smoked marijuana even while subject to drug testing. Substance abuse treatment was a special condition of his sentence.
Mervolion said he watched as an officer dropped a handgun near the spot where a homeless man was wounded by a third officer who mistakenly thought a Walkman held by the victim was a gun.
Mervolion, a 300-pound hulk whom other officers considered disruptive and dishonest, quit after a shoplifting arrest. His marriage disintegrated after his wife opposed his decision three years ago to cooperate.
Of the other seven convicted officers, four are free on bail while appealing convictions and sentences ranging from 13 months to three years, and three convicted in a retrial face sentencing next week. Their lawyers dismissed Hames and Mervolion as liars motivated by their pension dollars.
Police shootings, beatings or acquittals in Miami triggered riots or smaller street clashes six times from 1980 to 1995, when the department was under international pressure to quell a series of deadly robberies that tainted the state's tourist image.
Brewing community outrage led to the hiring of a new police chief, changes in police shooting policies, the creation of a civilian police review board and more than $4.7 million in shooting lawsuit settlements.
The planted-gun plot became the city's worst police scandal since the 1980s when the so-called Miami River Cops caused the drowning of three drug boat guards, stole cocaine from traffickers and sold the drug themselves. More than 100 officers were arrested, fired or disciplined.