Teen freed in the murder of a rabbi is suing Miami-Dade police over wrongful arrest

A South Florida teenager once accused of murdering a rabbi in a botched robbery has filed a wrongful arrest lawsuit, claiming that authorities jailed him despite having evidence proving him innocent.

Deandre Charles, 18, who spent nearly a year behind bars before prosecutors dropped the case against him, last week filed the federal suit against Miami-Dade police and the case’s lead homicide detective, Michael Brajdic.

“It was evident right away that Deandre was not responsible or involved with the unfortunate death of Rabbi Raksin,” Adam Goodman, one of Charles’ lawyers, said Tuesday. “During the discovery process, it became clear that other suspects were involved, and ignored by MDPD and the State Attorney’s Office.

“The lack of evidence against Deandre was alarming, and he spent almost a year of his high school life in jail due to this travesty.”

Charles was accused of gunning down Rabbi Joseph Raksin in August 2014. Raksin was visiting his family from Brooklyn and was shot as he walked to a Northeast Miami-Dade synagogue for Saturday services — a killing that stunned the tight-knit Orthodox community.

The high-profile case went unsolved for 16 months until Charles was arrested. At a now-infamous news conference, State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle showed off a crude drawing of the killer made by an eyewitness — the sketch was so bad that it quickly became the butt of jokes on the Internet, and even one by comedian Kevin Hart.

“It quickly went viral and was referred to as the ‘worst witness sketch in history,’” another of his lawyers, James DeMiles, wrote in the federal lawsuit, adding it caused “further attention and humiliation” to Charles.

News of the lawsuit was first reported by the Miami New Times. The Miami-Dade Police Department said Tuesday morning it “cannot speak on any case that is under litigation.”

Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle holds a sketch and photo of the teenager arrested for the murder of Rabbi Joseph Raksin during a press conference on Dec. 9, 2015. The amateur sketch went viral on the Internet, with many people mistakenly believing the drawing was done by a police artist. Miami Herald file

Charles was the only person ever arrested in the Raksin murder, and the case is considered open.

At the time of the news conference in December 2015, police said Charles’ DNA was found both on the murder weapon and in the getaway Cadillac SUV, and cellphone records showed he was near the crime scene. And, they said, an eyewitness who saw two men running from the area where Raksin was killed identified Charles as one of them, picking his photo out of a lineup.

The circumstantial case faltered almost immediately. Four months after the arrest, then-Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Jason Bloch harshly criticized the lack of evidence and ordered Charles released on bail.

By January 2017, prosecutors acknowledged the case against Charles had fallen apart and dropped the charges.

Because of changes in the reporting methods of the Miami-Dade crime lab, prosecution experts were no longer sure Charles’ DNA was in the Cadillac SUV. Either way, it was no secret Charles was in the SUV. Six days after the homicide, he was part of a group of young men stopped in the SUV and questioned. His lawyers say he “was wowed by the luxury vehicle” and “agreed to go for a ride” with his brother’s friends that day.

Prosecutors also said the DNA samples found on the gun were only about 20 times more likely to be Charles’ rather than another person, “an extremely low number” in the DNA identification field.

Even if Charles’ DNA was on the weapon, investigators later learned that reputed gang members sometimes stored guns at his home, giving a “different and reasonable explanation” about how his DNA got onto the firearm, according to the prosecution’s own final memo on the case.

In another blow to the case, records verified Charles’ claim that his brother was carrying his cellphone that day.

The problems with the evidence mounted. The pistol that killed Raksin was used in a robbery seven miles from the murder scene the day before the killing — something Miami-Dade cops knew, but didn’t tell prosecutors until months after the arrest, according to the state’s memo.

Rabbi Joseph Raksin

“The fact that the firearm was used the day before the murder in a robbery is highly relevant and supports the defense theory that someone else committed the murder, possibly the same person who committed the armed robbery,” prosecutors said in the final memo.

That’s not all. According to the lawsuit and police reports, a confidential informant and a CrimeStoppers tip soon after the killing led Miami-Dade police to focus on a group of other young men, some associates of Charles, who “were involved in the homicide” and seemed to blame each other.

A witness named Junior Souffrant claimed that during the shooting he was in the Cadillac SUV with two men, Kevin Civil and Dennis Parker, who got out. Shots sounded and the men came running back. According to a detective’s report, Souffrant told police that Civil said: “I just bagged a Jew, I think I’m going to get caught for it,” the Miami Herald reported in May 2016.

But neither Souffrant nor the confidential informant mentioned Charles as being there on the day of the killing. And while Civil denied killing the rabbi to police, the lawsuit suggested that he was to blame.

“Although there is an age gap between [Charles] and [Civil], the two closely resembled each other, causing the possibility of mis-identification to be high,” the lawsuit said.

Bradjic, the lead detective, “turned a blind eye” to the involvement of the other men in the case, the lawsuit alleges. The Miami-Dade police department rushed the case and the press conference because investigators were “so hellbent on closing the murder investigation with an arrest,” the lawsuit said.