For wounded bystanders and relatives of a motorist slain in a chaotic and controversial Memorial Day police shooting in South Beach, this holiday weekend marks three years of frustration and unanswered questions.
Sarah Garcia, a 28-year-old from Naples visiting Miami Beach that night, says she still suffers from post-traumatic stress syndrome from stray bullets that struck her in the elbow and leg during a wild volley of police fire never fully explained.
“She continues with the debilitating injuries and is emotionally and severely traumatized,” said her attorney, Bradley Winston.
Some answers, finally, may soon be coming.
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Miami-Dade prosecutors now say they are hoping to wrap up their probe within the next several months, meaning the public will finally get an in-depth look at the night a dozen officers from Hialeah and Miami Beach unloaded 116 shots at motorist Raymond Herisse, killing him — and wounding at least three bystanders.
Miami-Dade state attorney’s spokesman Ed Griffith defended the pace of the probe.
“This investigation has been complicated by a three-block-long investigative crime scene involving multiple police agencies, which added another layer to the comprehensive legal review of the facts and the evidence,” he said. “The work on this investigation has been steadily progressing and hopefully will be completed by the end of the summer.”
The investigation will show whether prosecutors believe any officers broke the law in discharging their weapons. Though criminal charges appear unlikely with the broad latitude officers are granted under the law, the findings also could play a key role in stalled civil lawsuits against Miami Beach and the police departments.
Just on Friday, a lawyer for Cedrick Perkins, a bystander who still has a bullet lodged near his heart, filed an excessive-force lawsuit against Miami Beach, Hialeah and individual police officers. Another wounded bystander, Carlson St. Louis, will also file next week, said his lawyer, Eli Stiers.
“He remains optimistic that justice, although delayed, will ultimately prevail, and that the city of Miami Beach and the city of Hialeah will be held accountable for the reckless actions of these officers,” Stiers said.
Those suits add to lawsuits by one other wounded bystander, plus a wrongful death action filed by Herisse’s relatives.
“It will be the world to them,” their lawyer, Marwan Porter, said of the impending conclusion of the investigation. “A mother lost her son, and three years later she has no answers as to why.”
The shooting happened three years ago during Urban Beach Week. The event, in full swing this weekend, typically attracts tens of thousands of revelers to Miami Beach for a week of hip-hop-fueled parties — but it’s not as popular with many residents.
Civil rights leaders have long criticized police for what they say are heavy-handed tactics in dealing with the mostly black crowd. But the yearly events also have rankled some Beach residents because of the crush of outsiders clogging traffic and an increase in crime.
The shooting was the first of a handful of scandals involving Beach police over the past several years.
In another high-profile case, now-fired Officer Derick Kuilan — joyriding with a bachelorette — ran his ATV over a couple on the sand of South Beach in July 2011. Kuilan, who also opened fire during the Memorial Day weekend incident, is going on trial this week on a charge of drunken-driving resulting in serious bodily injury.
The Herisse killing — on May 30, 2011 — rocked South Florida. The shooting came as police tried to stop Herisse’s speeding four-door Hyundai as it barreled down a Collins Avenue crowded with throngs of visitors.
Miami Beach police said Herisse ignored orders to pull over, nearly hitting several officers and slamming into barricades and cars.
Video shot from a nearby apartment and later uploaded on the Internet showed Herisse’s car speeding down the congested street amid gunfire. Once the car stopped, officers from Miami Beach and Hialeah — the latter hired to help with policing the event — surrounded it with guns drawn and fired.
Three days after the shooting, Miami Beach detectives said they found a gun wrapped in cloth under the driver’s seat. But a gunshot residue test on Herisse’s hands showed he never fired a weapon.
Alex Bello, the head of Miami Beach’s police union, said radio chatter released last year showed that police officers feared for their lives because they believed shots had been fired from the car. And Herisse also refused to stop, he said, hitting several cars and nearly running over one officer — conduct that amounts to aggravated assault.
“We feel very confident that the officers will be ruled justified in the shootings,” Bello said this past week.
Porter, the lawyer for Herisse’s family, insists that the man had stopped the car long enough to be allowed to surrender.
“He posed no threat to anyone,” Porter said.
The pursuit of civil lawsuits has been stalled because prosecutors, by law, can withhold most records to complete their investigation.
One year ago, lawyers for the wounded bystanders and Herisse’s family went to court to ask a judge to force the department to turn over records. Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Victoria Sigler ruled that most of the records could be kept secret but ordered police to turn over some documents, including a medical examiner’s report and 911 and police radio dispatches.
The judge, annoyed with police stonewalling on documents, later ordered Miami Beach to pay legal fees to the lawyers of the plaintiffs.
CHANCES OF CHARGES
In Miami-Dade, prosecutors draft a detailed final report, what’s known as a close-out memo, outlining the evidence in a case. A committee of senior prosecutors then determines whether police officers committed crimes — such as manslaughter — in discharging their weapons.
Police officers, under state law, have long been afforded wide discretion to use deadly force in defense of themselves or others. Tasked with having to prove a case beyond a reasonable doubt, Florida prosecutors rarely bring charges against police officers for on-duty shootings.
The last Florida cop charged with an on-duty shooting was William Lozano, who ultimately was acquitted of the 1989 killing of a fleeing black motorcyclist that ignited three days of racially charged rioting in Miami. In that case, an appellate court also ruled that prosecutors could not convict based on evidence that police officers did not follow proper department procedures.
In March, the state attorney’s office declined to press charges against a group of Miami-Dade officers who killed four robbers during a botched sting in 2011, including a law enforcement informant who had surrendered and was lying on the ground.
But in a stinging 40-page final report, the office pointed out severe flaws in police tactics and stopped short of ruling that most of the officers were “justified.”
In the South Beach case, lawyers for the plaintiffs know prosecutors might not file charges.
“Regardless of the outcome and the evidence that surfaces, there will be no reasonable explanation for why officers fired over 100 rounds of ammunition during the crowded Memorial Day weekend in 2011,” said attorney Jasmine Rand, who represents Perkins, one of the wounded bystanders.