Eyewitness accounts and a photo that didn’t jibe with police testimony helped persuade a grand jury that a Broward Sheriff’s deputy acted criminally when he fatally shot a computer systems engineer holding a BB-gun rifle. It is the first time a police officer in Florida has been charged for killing a person on duty in 26 years.
On Thursday night, more than two years after BSO Deputy Peter Peraza took the life of 33-year-old Jermaine McBean as he strolled through his Oakland Park apartment complex with an air rifle slung over his shoulder and wearing earbud headphones, Peraza was charged with manslaughter.
After three days of testimony, the grand jury indicted the 14-year BSO veteran with a first-degree felony punishable by up to 30 years in prison. Peraza turned himself in to the Broward County Jail on Friday morning.
His arraignment is expected within a month. His bond was set at $25,000. He has been suspended without pay until the trial is concluded.
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Peraza, 37, insisted he felt his life was in danger because McBean refused commands to drop the weapon, then turned and pointed it him. And he claimed nothing was obstructing McBean’s hearing. But a photo snapped by a neighbor later showed McBean’s bloodied body with the music earbuds still on his head, raising the possibility that he never heard any police commands.
The charge brought some relief to McBean’s relatives, who have filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against BSO. Their attorney, David Schoen, said he would like to see additional charges filed against two supervising officers who were at the scene and who supported Peraza’s claim.
“The shooter swore under oath he [McBean] had no earphones in,” Schoen said. “Somebody later put it in his pocket, that’s for sure. They [McBean’s family] were obviously really elated last night. But nothing is going to bring Jermaine back.”
The charge comes during a time of intense nationwide scrutiny on police tactics, particularly in cases of on-duty killings of young black men. It also comes on the heels of similar police charges in Baltimore and Chicago.
The rare indictment drew immediate and harsh criticism from backers of law enforcement who contend the national scrutiny now placed on police tactics threatens officer safety.
Jeff Bell, the president of BSO’s International Union of Police Associations, said the arrest “smells of a political witchhunt” from Broward State Attorney Michael Satz.
“We’re in scary times. We’re facing times when cops are almost expected to be shot at first before we can even think of returning fire because we’re so worried about other people’s political agenda,” Bell said. “This isn’t a case, like the ones we’ve seen throughout the country involving unarmed persons. You had documented calls coming in. You had a weapon seen by the deputy. You have a weapon started to be pointed at the deputy.”
Peraza’s lawyer, Eric Schwartzreich, called the indictment dangerous and an “abomination.” He said the earbuds were nothing more than a “red herring” and suggested they might have been removed by paramedics trying to revive McBean.
“Every officer’s move is being Monday Morning quarterbacked,” Schwartzreich said. “My client never saw any earbuds. What matters is his perception. He saw a rifle being pointed at him.”
In a brief statement issued Friday, Broward Sheriff Scott Israel said his office respects the grand jury process.
“For everyone in this case, the McBean family, the Peraza family, the BSO family, everyone in our community, we want truth and justice to prevail,” Israel said.
Satz declined comment. He is running for re-election.
For Florida, it was a historic decision. The last time a police officer was charged with killing someone in this state was 26 years ago.
It was 1989 when Miami police officer William Lozano shot a single bullet into Clement Lloyd as he sped his motorcycle through Overtown trying to avoid police. The bullet struck Lloyd in the head and also caused the death of Allan Blanchard, who was riding on Lloyd’s bike and tossed to the ground.
Their deaths sparked several days of riots in Miami. Miami-Dade State Attorney Janet Reno chose to bypass the grand jury, her office filing two counts of manslaughter with a deadly weapon against Lozano, who was convicted at trial. An appeals court overturned the case.
Lozano was later acquitted by a jury in Orlando. The appeals court ruling also barred prosecutors from introducing evidence of training and police policies to jurors in a criminal case, further hampering prosecutions of police officers in fatal shootings.
A police officer hasn’t been charged in Broward County with an on-duty shooting death since 1980, a case that resulted in an acquittal.
In McBean’s case, the 33-year-old Pace University graduate worked as an IT engineer with Zimmerman Advertising in Fort Lauderdale. He was known for his love of superheroes and cats.
The day of his death in July 2013, he had just purchased a Winchester model 1000 air rifle at a nearby pawn shop for just over $100.
Several residents called 911 to report a man walking along Dixie Highway with a rifle. But the callers also noted that McBean was not acting aggressively and two callers mentioned the rifle looked like a BB gun.
Inside the complex, Peraza confronted McBean. In sworn testimony, he said he ordered McBean to drop what he thought was a hunting rifle. He fired three times, saying McBean was turning the weapon toward him.
A police officer said that before McBean died he said: “It was just a BB gun.” It was also unloaded.
BSO asserted that McBean ignored orders to drop his weapon. The photograph taken from the second floor of the apartment complex, first published by the New York Times, showed McBean lying on the ground, still wearing the headphones.
And witnesses told several media outlets that McBean never pointed the air rifle at the officers. Schoen, the family’s attorney, said the Broward state attorney’s office convened a grand jury after he pushed for the U.S. Department of Justice to begin a civil rights investigation, and despite police department findings that Peraza only fired when he believed his life was in danger.
McBean’s family filed a federal lawsuit arguing the Broward County Medical Examiner’s Office findings contradicted police statements. The family said McBean didn’t turn around far enough to aim the rifle at officers and that police were wrong claiming they found the earbuds in McBean’s pocket.
Still, many experts believe Peraza is likely to prevail in court.
Roy Black, who defended Lozano at trial, said Florida law gives police officers wide latitude to use deadly force — especially in the face of a perceived threat.
“I don’t see any basis for these charges,” Black said. “I don’t think there is any chance of a conviction at trial. You have somebody calling 911, officers being told there is a man with a gun. Obviously, they think this is a dangerous situation.”