Late on a fall night, David Alexis returned home from his job transporting patients at Northshore Medical Center. As he opened the gate of the house to back into the driveway, he noticed a suspicious white truck with tinted windows parked across the street.
Alexis, 26, walked toward the truck to investigate. Within seconds, a confrontation unfolded. The truck’s driver got out. Alexis was shot five times, some of the bullets hitting him in the side and back.
That man, it turned out, was a Miami-Dade police detective who happened to be on a surveillance stakeout of another house on the block. Alexis, the detective told investigators, pointed a gun at him, leaving him no choice but to fire.
Seven years after Alexis was shot to death in Northwest Miami-Dade, a federal civil jury will try to unravel what happened that night — and whether Miami-Dade Detective Miguel Carballosa was justified in opening fire.
Trial began Wednesday in the wrongful-death lawsuit filed by Alexis’ family against Carballosa, a 15-year police veteran who long ago was cleared in a criminal investigation of the shooting. Civil trials in fatal South Florida police shootings are relatively rare, and Alexis’ family is seeking damages of over $75,000.
A lawyer for the slain man’s estate told jurors Wednesday that Alexis, who had a valid concealed weapons permit, had no idea that Carballosa was a police officer because he wore dark clothing and was in an unmarked truck. Attorney Pete DeMahy also suggested that Alexis was actually unarmed, and that Carballosa took the gun from the man’s car and tossed it in the middle of the street after the shooting.
“Nobody can explain how the gun got there,” DeMahy said during opening statements.
But Carballosa’s lawyer called the accusation nonsense, saying fellow officers and witnesses arrived so quickly “there was no time for anyone to have planted a gun.” Instead, he said, Alexis crept up to the front of the truck with a gun behind his back, even as Carballosa ordered him to show his hands, before pointing the weapon at the officer.
“He had a split second to decide whether to live or die,” Miami-Dade County Assistant Attorney Bernie Pastor told jurors. “When you have a man pointing a gun at you, as an officer, you shoot.”
Pastor added that Alexis could have simply called 911: “We wouldn’t be here if Mr. Alexis had gone inside his house and not decided to investigate and play cop.”
The civil trial against Carballosa comes as there has been increased national scrutiny on law-enforcement use of force, particularly against African-American men.
In recent months, Miami-Dade prosecutors have charged a slew of police officers accused of slapping, kicking or attacking handcuffed suspects — they’ve lost two of the cases at trial. In June, a jury convicted a North Miami police officer of criminal culpable negligence for firing at an autistic man holding a silver toy truck.
Alexis was shot and killed on Oct. 2, 2012, and his case has received little media attention over the years.
The Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office, as it does in all police-involved shootings, reviewed the case and ruled it was “legal and justified.” Carballosa would not be charged criminally with manslaughter, or murder.
Although state prosecutors acknowledged that Alexis came to be involved by “pure coincidence,” they had to rely on Carballosa’s sworn statement that “he was in fear for his life and safety.” “There are no other facts or statements to explain what happened,” according to a final prosecutor’s memo released in July 2014.
But Alexis’ legal team believed it had plenty of evidence to contradict the detective’s version of events, and filed a federal lawsuit alleging wrongful death and violations of his civil rights. The lawsuit was filed by Trudy Mighty, the mother of Alexis’ daughter, who represents the man’s estate.
Civil trials in South Florida police-shooting cases don’t happen often.
Miami-Dade County lawyers had asked that Carballosa be granted “qualified immunity,” a well-established legal protection that guards government employees from lawsuits if they were performing their duties and the conduct did not violate any constitutional rights.
But U.S. District Judge Federico Moreno, and a federal appeals court, ruled that there was enough conflicting evidence that might contradict the officer’s claim that Alexis was a threat, paving the way for this week’s civil jury trial.
The incident began on the night of Oct. 2, 2012, when detectives with the Miami-Dade Robbery Intervention Detail, or RID, were patrolling an area of North Miami-Dade that had been hard-hit by robberies. They spotted a suspicious Toyota Camry, rented with an out-of-state tag, circling a Winn-Dixie supermarket.
Investigators determined that the car had been rented by a man who lived on the 1400 block of Northwest 113th Terrace. Carballosa, a member of RID driving the unmarked white truck, was assigned to watch the house.
Alexis had nothing to do with the initial police probe. He lived two doors down and had gotten home just after 11 p.m. He’d planned to change and go with a co-worker for drinks on the beach.
That’s when he saw Carballosa’s white truck parked just across the quiet residential street. Lawyers on both sides said Alexis was wary of suspicious cars in the neighborhood.
Carballosa claimed that Alexis walked toward the truck in a menacing way, hunched low, leading with his left shoulder, his right hand behind his back. The officer said he lowered his window and identified himself as a police officer. As Alexis approached, Carballosa said he got out, wielding his own gun, and said he ordered Alexis to show him his hands.
Pastor, the officer’s attorney, said Alexis began walking backward, his left shoulder still toward the officer, his hand still behind his back. “We don’t know why Mr. Alexis does this. He starts pointing the gun upward,” Pastor said.
Carballosa walked forward, firing five times, with bullets ultimately hitting Alexis in the front, side and left back. Mortally wounded, Alexis died slumped against the fence of his own home.
DeMahy said that if anything, Alexis was complying with the officer’s commands to show his hands. He said the officer has given “contradicting” versions of what happened that night, and admitted in a deposition that he didn’t know where Alexis’ “gun was” when he started firing.
“At the end of the day, you will see convincingly, overwhelmingly, that this is an unjustified shooting,” DeMahy said.
The trial is expected to last about two weeks before Judge Moreno.