When Miami-Dade police busted a staggering 158 people at a South Miami-Dade cockfighting ring last month, the next step of justice could not be avoided.
They had to show up for court.
And so on Friday, in a unique — and, at times — frenzied morning, hundreds of defendants, their supporters and an army of private and public lawyers crowded the fourth-floor of Miami-Dade’s criminal courthouse for the arraignment.
While the arraignment was packed and loud, the morning was carefully choreographed.
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Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Ariana Fajardo traded in her small second-floor digs for the roomy fourth-floor court normally reserved for high-profile trials.
Miami-Dade prosecutors wheeled in seven neatly organized boxes on a dolly, then handed out to lawyers spreadsheets with the names of the defendants. Info sheets passed out to lawyers described the instant offer of “pretrial diversion” — charges would be dropped in exchange for $1,150 in fines and fees.
The logistical muscle flocked to court: uniformed police and corrections officers, four bailiffs, a rotating cast of Spanish-language interpreters and one sole and very stoic clerk, responsible for filing the paperwork and reviewing each file.
In the hallway, 12 Miami-Dade assistant public defenders stood atop benches, hollering in Spanish for scores of defendants — court notices stuffed in their pockets — to gather around and fill out paperwork.
“ Esto es una boberia,” said Osmany Cruz, 48, a Cuban-born welder on disability who was arrested that day. “This is foolishness. This is just a hobby. No one was robbing or stealing. It’s just a diversion.”
One public defender bristled at the fines being offered: “You go to a baseball game, it’s not going to cost $1,150. I doubt these people have that much money. They don’t think they’ve done anything wrong.”
Inside, Judge Fajardo patiently began calling up private lawyers, scanning the immense court calender as people buzzed in and out of court. “I’ve only got seven clients,” joked Miami defense attorney Kenneth Weisman.
In all, only 10 defendants accepted the state’s offer of pretrial diversion.
The investigation began from a tip that people were gambling and selling drugs at a home in the Redland in deep South Miami-Dade.
Undercover Miami-Dade police officers, posing as customers, started dropping in and making drug buys.
Then on April 24, armed with a search warrant, officers entered the home and stumbled upon about 200 people, some armed, almost all gambling, standing and seated around a cockfighting ring that had been built in a theater-like setting.
Cockfighting, a popular legal sport in some Latin American countries that has long flourished in the rural areas of South Miami-Dade, is outlawed in Florida.
There were so many arrests that Miami-Dade corrections staffers had to dispatch buses to haul the defendants into jail. The majority were charged with attending a fight involving animal cruelty, a third-degree felony.
“Hats off to the police and prosecutors for doing this important case,” said John Goodwin, director of Animal Cruelty Policy for the Humane Society of the United States. “Tying knives to roosters legs and having them fight to the death, just so people can gamble, is despicable and should always be aggressively prosecuted.”