Jury Has Case Against Miami Officers Charged in Gun Cover-Up
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 37 bullets.
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 wounded.
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 alone.
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 still moving.
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 retirements risk-free.
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.
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.