Court strips immunity from Miami-Dade officers who shot and killed two men; trial under way

Seven years after police shot and killed two men in Little Haiti, a federal judge and an appellate court ruled they are not immune to civil penalties, and the trial has begun.

06/15/2014 12:11 PM

06/16/2014 7:10 AM

Nearly seven years ago, two men trapped in a Cadillac SUV on a dead-end street in Little Haiti were killed in a bullet barrage from two Miami-Dade cops working an elite robbery detail.

No weapon was ever found in or around the vehicle. A woman in the back seat was shot in the thigh but survived. The Miami-Dade state attorney’s office cleared the officers of any criminal wrongdoing.

Yet police officers Ryan Robinson and Michael Mendez were in Miami federal civil court last week trying to convince a jury that they’re not to blame for the deaths of Michael Knight and Frisco Blackwood, shot and killed after making a tragically wrong turn onto a dead-end street.

Blackwood, the driver, was trying to get to the home of his girlfriend, Latasha Cure — the third person in the vehicle, who was shot in the thigh but survived — only a block away, she told jurors last week.

That there is a trial at all is surprising. Police officers are rarely stripped of immunity and forced into civil proceedings.

But a federal judge and an appeals court strayed from common course and refused immunity to Robinson and Mendez, who fired the 27 bullets into the Cadillac SRX seven years ago, killing Blackwood and Knight.

A court hearing was granted after South Florida U.S. Magistrate Edwin G. Torres denied a motion by the officers’ attorneys to halt the process and award immunity. The Atlanta-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit followed Torres’ lead, forcing a trial.

“It’s a unique case,” said Miami lawyer Doug Hartman, who frequently represents police officers and is not involved in this case. “They only happen once in awhile, and usually only if the county does not end up offering a settlement. In this case, it will come down to whether the jury believes the main witness.”

Though a verdict against the officers won’t mean time behind bars, it could mean a big pay day for Cure — the main witness — and Knight’s mother, Cheryl Kerr. They filed the suit in 2009 and are seeking punitive and other damages.

The outcome of the case will rest on whether the jury finds that Cure was coerced by police into a sworn statement she gave on the night of the shootings, when she said Blackwood and Knight made a concerted effort to try to avoid the officers and flee.

THE OFFICERS

Robinson, 41 and an 11-year veteran, and Mendez, 41, who has been on the force for a decade, were members of the county’s Robbery Intervention Detail when the shootings occurred. They are still employed as county cops. Robinson got into hot water in April when he was arrested and charged with four counts of driving under the influence after a car he was driving in a South Miami-Dade parking lot hit a shopping cart and injured two young girls.

Jurors will be pressed to determine whether the officers fired their weapons in self-defense after feeling threatened by the SUV driven by Blackwood, or if the vehicle only lurched backward after Blackwood was shot dead. Cure’s credibility also is in question. She gave conflicting versions of what occurred in a sworn statement the night of the shootings, and on the witness stand Tuesday.

The trial is expected to last well into this week.

“They felt the police were going to kill them. … Knight falls out onto the road after being shot. The relentless shooting continued. The Cadillac propelled backward by the near lifeless body of Frisco Blackwood,” Cure’s attorney Ben Kuehne told jurors in his opening statement. “Not a single one of the officers was in danger, whatsoever.”

Miami-Dade Assistant County Attorney Rachel Walters retorted: “Officer Robinson found himself staring down the barrel of a two-ton weapon. The vehicle came careening at him. The decisions that night were being made by Frisco Blackwood and Michael Knight.”

At the time, Knight and Blackwood were both on state probation. Blackwood was serving two years’ probation for burglary and grand theft. Knight was on probation for fleeing a law enforcement officer and resisting arrest without violence.

THE NIGHT

Cure, 29, told jurors that the evening began at a strip joint in North Miami-Dade called Coco’s Nightclub, where she was celebrating Knight’s 21st birthday. Cure, 23 at the time, tried to bring some levity when she referred to herself as a “cougar.”

Cure told jurors that she and a friend jumped into the back seat of the brand new Cadillac, Blackwood driving, Knight in the passenger seat, as they headed to her Buena Vista home around 9:30 p.m. After dropping her friend off and while heading north on North Miami Avenue just past Northwest 62nd Street, Cure said the three of them noticed a Miami-Dade patrol car making a U-turn, then following them.

For about the next 10 blocks, as Blackwood made a right turn onto Northwest 67th Street and another right onto Second Avenue, police continued to follow, never turning on their lights or signaling the Cadillac to pull over. Cure said they were scared, at one point discussing how someone might have stolen the cop car in order to rob them.

Police said they followed the Cadillac because the windows were illegally tinted, then pulled it over when Blackwood finally sped up well over the speed limit. Cure said she told Blackwood to turn down 64th Street and get to her home where it would be safer.

But Blackwood made a mistake and turned right on 65th. He sped up, and finally came to a halt at a dead end, where police turned on their lights and told the three to come out of the car with their hands in the air.

Cure claimed Robinson and Mendez approached from the front and driver’s side of the car, guns drawn, then began shooting before anyone got out of the car. A picture of the car shows six bullets entered through the driver’s side window, eight more through the windshield.

At some point the Cadillac lurched backward. Police say that’s when they felt threatened and began to fire. Cure, under testimony, said the car began to move only after Blackwood was shot in the head, and already dead.

“They had their guns drawn. They told everybody in the car to put their hands up,” Cure said. “I heard a clink. After the clink I hear gunshots. After the first gunshot I see Frisco slink immediately to the side — he was already dead. That’s when the car started going back. The shot came from the driver’s window; it shattered Frisco’s head.”

When the shooting subsided, Cure said she began climbing out a back window, and that’s when Mendez yanked her out the rest of the way, forced her to the ground face down and handcuffed her.

“Where’s the gun? Where’s the gun? Where’s the other guy?” Mendez asked, Cure told jurors.

THE AFTERMATH

Paramedics soon showed up and Cure’s cuffs were removed; she was treated and taken to the hospital. She was escorted in the ambulance by a police officer. Cure said that once at the hospital, against her own wishes, a female police officer told her to have the bullet in her thigh removed. She did, and the officer took the bullet.

Cure said after surgery to remove the bullet, she called a friend to pick her up and take her home, but when she got home another officer was waiting. Still in her hospital gown and only wearing socks, Cure was taken by the officer to police headquarters where she spent the next seven hours giving a statement.

Cure told jurors she was never told she didn’t have to comply or that she could call a lawyer. She also said she wasn’t offered a chance to clean up and kept falling asleep. She told jurors that officers repeatedly halted the work of the stenographer and passed notes to each other on a brown Dunkin’ Donuts napkin.

Still, Cure signed a sworn statement that night saying the officers didn’t fire until Blackwood accelerated the car in reverse, then turned it toward Robinson. Cure said she told Blackwood to “put it in park,” but he ignored her. At one point, she said Knight said to “bring it,” which she explained were instructions to Blackwood to try and get away from the cops.

“I was drained, I was like physically drained,” Cure said of her condition when she signed the statement. “The intimidation of the police officers was tremendous.”

THE COUNTERATTACK

Assistant Miami-Dade County Attorney Bernie Pastor sought to attack her credibility, informing the jury about several past arrests of Cure, including grand theft and using false identification. She is currently on probation for resisting arrest in Broward County.

Pastor rebuked Cure’s testimony, telling jurors there was nothing in the stenographer’s notes taken on Nov. 13, 2007, that indicated police told her to stop typing, or that officers were sending each other messages on a napkin.

Pastor questioned Cure’s statement about Robinson and Mendez getting out of their patrol car and shooting without warning, when on the night of the incident Cure told police one of the officers got on a megaphone and ordered everyone out of the car, and that Blackwood put the vehicle into reverse over her objections.

“Nothing you’ve described is mentioned in this transcript. There’s nothing in there that reflects you fell asleep, or that you wanted to discontinue,” Pastor said.

The trial continues Monday.

Miami Herald staff writer David Ovalle contributed to the report.

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