A federal jury late Monday awarded $850,000 to a man who said he was wrongfully arrested for murder by Miami police preening for reality-show TV cameras.
Taiwan Smart, 27, spent 19 months in jail before the charges were dropped against him in the November 2009 fatal shootings of two Little Haiti teens. Smart sued the city of Miami for wrongful arrest and violation of civil rights and won after an eight-day trial.
“A badge does not give you immunity from the law,” Smart told the Miami Herald late Monday. “You have a duty to uphold the law.”
The verdict is another embarrassing blow for the Miami police department, which has been criticized in the community and in courts for its involvement with the popular A&E show The First 48.
The show follows homicide detectives from across the country during the first few days of murder investigations. The show featured Miami police in 113 episodes. But in 2013, the city cut ties with the show amid concerns about focusing primarily on violence in Miami’s black neighborhoods.
Earlier this year, a Miami appeals court upheld a judges’ decision to throw out key evidence based on First 48 footage. The judge cited concerns about “what is real versus the result of reality television” after a detective admitted to “play” acting certain scenes.
As for Smart, he was charged with the execution-style killings of Jonathan Volcy, 18, and his 14-year-old friend, Raynathan Ray, inside a Little Haiti apartment. Smart had been inside the apartment but insisted he fled in terror before the gunman opened fire.
The production crew’s involvement in the case became central to Smart’s lawsuit. According to his lawsuit, detectives Fabio Sanchez and Eutemio Cepero interrogated him for 19 hours, then grossly misrepresented the evidence against him.
“Had Miami detectives spent a little more time investigating and less time posing for TV shots and reenacting portions of what had happened outside the view of the cameras, they might have figured out that the murders occurred after Taiwan had fled the premises in fear of his life,” according to the suit by lawyers Joe Klock and Hilton Napoleon.
“But with an eye toward fame and notoriety for themselves and the city, the detectives plowed ahead with their ‘speedy’ theory of crime resolution and arrested, shamed and humiliated this young man, as well as depriving him of his freedom for 19 months.”
According to the lawsuit, another man in Miami-Dade jail admitted to inmates that he was actually one of the men who killed the teens. Smart also passed a polygraph test.
Federal jurors deliberated less than three hours before deciding in Smart’s favor.