Four years later, last of seven controversial Miami police shootings still under investigation

06/21/2014 6:45 PM

06/21/2014 6:45 PM

Four years after a series of fatal Miami police shootings roiled the city and led to a federal probe of the department, one of the deadly encounters still remains under investigation.

State prosecutors have yet to determine whether then-Officer Ricardo Martinez was justified when he fatally shot 16-year-old Joeell Johnson, who is believed to have pointed a gun at an undercover detective posing as a Chinese food deliveryman in August 2010 during a sting in Overtown.

Johnson’s is the final open case in seven Miami police shootings in 2010 and 2011 that drew heavy criticism of street tactics and then-police chief Miguel Exposito. All but two of the slain men were armed.

Earlier this year, newly released records show, prosecutors ruled that Martinez was legally justified in another shooting that same month — the killing of shotgun-wielding Tarnoris Gaye, 19, during a gang sweep in Model City in August 2010.

Martinez was later kicked off the police force in an unrelated case after federal authorities arrested him for fencing stolen Bluetooth headgear sets.

The rash of shootings led to a U.S. Department of Justice investigation into the police department. The probe in July 2013 found an unconstitutional “pattern or practice” of excessive use of force, spurring reforms and federal oversight.

Former Miami City Commissioner Richard Dunn II, who was critical of police during the spate of shootings, said he was surprised to hear that the Johnson case was still open. The Rev. Dunn said he hopes a “thorough investigation” by prosecutors will soon close a tense chapter between Miami’s mostly African-American community and the police department.

“Hopefully, this will be the end of that horrific time period we went through,” Dunn said.

A spokesman for the Miami-Dade state attorney’s office last week could not say when the Johnson investigation would be complete.

“I’m surprised it’s taken so long. I don’t know why it’s still open,” said Miami police union president Javier Ortiz. “But there is no doubt in my mind, this shooting will be ruled justified. The police had information that the suspect had been involved in robbing deliverymen at gunpoint, and that’s what he was doing when officers were forced to fire.”

At the time, the shootings also led to criticism of the state attorney’s office for long delays in finishing investigations into officer-involved shootings. The Gaye shooting is one of 20 fatal police shooting probes that have been closed so far this year for incidents that took place between 2008 and 2013.

The separate shootings — involving officers from various police departments across Miami-Dade — were detailed in final reports released recently to the Miami Herald.

In all, prosecutors are still investigating 90 police shootings and in-custody deaths, some stretching back several years, others recorded in recent months. In an effort to crack the backlog, one retiring prosecutor has spent the past several months assigned solely to examine the cases.

In Miami-Dade, prosecutors review every police shooting to see if officers broke state law in using their weapons. Under Florida law, on-duty officers are given wide leeway in using deadly force to protect themselves or others — and prosecutors statewide, including here, virtually never charge cops for manslaughter or murder.

In March, prosecutors declined to file any charges against a group of Miami-Dade officers who shot and killed four armed robbers in a botched sting, including an informant who was lying on the ground after having dropped his weapon.

But prosecutors, in a scathing report ripping the police operation in the Redland, refused to rule that most of the officers were “justified” in using deadly force.

Among the cases still pending: the police shooting death of a speeding motorist during Memorial Day 2011 in South Beach, an incident that also wounded four bystanders. Prosecutors say they hope to finish their review of the case by the end of the summer.

In Martinez’s case, he was part of a special tactical unit created by then-Chief Exposito aimed at cracking down on violent offenders. The since-disbanded unit was criticized as fostering a shoot-first, ask-questions-later attitude among its officers.

Martinez shot and killed Johnson during a sting aimed at curbing a series of robberies. Nine days later, on Aug. 20, 2010, Martinez and federal agent Maikel Guinart were riding in Martinez’s undercover police truck were on a “routine” gang sweep.

According to the newly released final report on the case by prosecutors, the two spotted Gaye “riding his bicycle in an awkward manner” just past midnight around Northwest 14th Avenue and 58th Street.

The officers believed Gaye — who was alongside another teen, Stephen Battle, riding a bike — was wielding a “long weapon or firearm.”

According to prosecutors, when the officers activated their police lights and yelled for the teens to stop, Gaye ditched the bike and “pointed a shotgun in the direction” of the officers.

Battle, too, took out his weapon and “pointed it at the undercover vehicle” before the police fired.

Both officers fired. Five police bullets hit Gaye, who staggered over a chain link fence before collapsing, mortally wounded.

At the second the shots were fired, Gaye appeared to be trying to flee. An autopsy revealed that Gaye had gunshot wounds to the left upper back, arm and head. An associate medical examiner concluded that the wounds were “consistent” with Gaye turning as the shots rang out — neither officer was directly behind the teen as he was shot.

Detectives found a Mossberg 500A 12-gauge shotgun and Battle’s .38 revolver. Battle was arrested uninjured.

Martinez and Guinart “reasonably believed their lives, as well as the lives of others, were in danger” when they discharged their weapons, prosecutors said.

A neighbor later told Miami police that he saw the two young men rob a pedestrian at gunpoint several hours before the police-involved shooting.

Other officers cleared in notable cases this year:

• Miami-Dade Officer Christian Smith, who shot and killed suspected gang member Gregorio Manrique, who had begun shooting toward a rival at a funeral in South Miami-Dade in June 2008.
• Officers from the Broward Sheriff’s Office and Miami, who shot and killed Delvin Lewis, a suspected gunman who led police on a high-speed chase that ended in a crash at Mt. Sinai Hospital in Miami Beach in 2008. A police dog known as Oozie was killed in the gunfire.
• Miami-Dade Officer Oscar Plasencia, who shot and killed murder suspect Johnny Simms in January 2011. Simms had shot and killed warrants detectives Amanda Haworth and Roger Castillo in Liberty City.
• Miami Beach Detective Martin Garcia, who was working with Miami-Dade robbery detectives when he fatally shot Julio Santiago, who led police on a car and foot chase in Liberty City in February 2012. Garcia said Santiago, who vowed not to return to prison, claimed he had a gun, though no firearm was ultimately found.
• Miami-Dade Officer Edgardo Gonzalez and Razier Tejeda, who shot and killed shoplifting suspects Yolanda Thomas and Xavier Johnson after a high-speed car chase ended when the passenger “appeared to be moving and reaching for something” in January 2013.

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