Crime

Miami security guard blames George Zimmerman for arrest in killing of unarmed man

Former security guard Lukace Kendle is claiming self defense in fatally shooting a man outside a North Miami-Dade strip club.
Former security guard Lukace Kendle is claiming self defense in fatally shooting a man outside a North Miami-Dade strip club. Miami Herald

Lukace Kendle, the security guard who fatally shot an unarmed black man and wounded another outside a North Miami-Dade strip club, took to the lecturn to act as his own lawyer.

“The reason the evidence was fabricated is because I’m white,” the pony-tailed, pointy-goateed Kendle said to jurors during the start of his murder trial on Tuesday.

Seconds later, Kendle went where the judge had warned him not to go.

“The subjects I shot were African American. I can prove that,” Kendle said. “What they’re not allowing me to tell you is that I was arrested because of the George Zimmerman shooting.”

Prosecutors howled in objection. Relatives of the slain man, 29-year-old Kijuan Byrd, shook their heads. Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Dava Tunis chastised Kendle.

“We discussed this at length,” Tunis said. “This is the only warning I’m giving. I ruled according to the law.”

So began the trial of Kendle, whose case again casts scrutiny on Florida’s controversial Stand Your Ground law — and the racial friction that surfaced when Zimmerman fatally shot Miami Gardens teen Trayvon Martin near Orlando in February 2012.

Kendle, 29, of Homestead, is accused of murdering Byrd and wounding Michael Smathers, who today remains paralyzed because of his injuries.

The shooting happened four months after Zimmerman, a white-and-Hispanic neighborhood watchman, fatally shot Trayvon during a confrontation in Sanford. Police, citing Florida’s self-defense law, did not initially arrest Zimmerman, who claimed the unarmed black teen was bashing his head in on the sidewalk.

The case sparked massive rallies across the country and calls for repeals of the controversial law, which eliminated a citizen’s duty to retreat before using deadly force to counter a threat. A jury acquitted Zimmerman of a murder charge after a nationally televised trial.

At the time, Byrd’s killing drew some media attention — his family, like Trayvon’s, was represented by civil rights lawyer Benjamin Crump, who called for Kendle’s arrest.

In the years since his death, Byrd’s relatives have focused their attention on passing legislation aimed to strengthening training and implementing mental-health evaluations for poorly trained security guards. A petition on Change.org netted over 40,000 supporters.

Byrd was a new father who had recently gotten a job with an electrician. Smathers worked in construction.

In the run-up to the trial, Kendle’s mental health was indeed an issue. On two occasions, a judge declared him mentally incompetent to proceed to trial; Kendle was later rehabilitated and insisted on representing himself.

During jury selection, Kendle declared he wanted an “all female African-American” jury to decide his case. He refused to allow his court-appointed stand-by counsel, Jamaican-American lawyer Abe Bailey, to sit by his side at the defendant’s table.

On Tuesday, Miami-Dade prosecutor Gary Winston laid out the state’s case.

Byrd and Smathers, longtime friends, had been barbecuing after work on June 1, 2012. Later that night, they went in Smathers’ Ford F-150 to Club Lexx, 12001 NW 27th Ave., to play some pool.

They were inside the truck, smoking a joint, when Kendle pulled up to begin his 11 p.m. shift. He pulled his car into the small spot immediately next to Smathers’ truck.

Outside the truck, Kendle began dressing in gear: an all-black uniform, vest, baton, gloves, a knife, ammunition and his gun. Some sort of confrontation occurred — but only Kendle was armed.

Kendle unleashed a torrent of bullets on the men, hitting Byrd numerous times in the back . “He was shot even as he tried to crawl to safety under Michael’s truck,” Winston told jurors.

Smathers, who is expected to testify, is now a paraplegic. “He will probably never walk again,” Winston said.

“This case is about the mystery of the defendant’s mind,” Winston said. “He exploded into anger.”

The killing was captured on video surveillance.

In his opening statement, Kendle did not shy away from admitting he shot the men. The defendant wore a dark suit, frenetically paced from side to side, his leg dragging from a belt attached to it that can shock an inmate if he turns violent in court.

Kendle proudly described himself as a “bouncer with a gun” with a degree in electrical engineering. “On the job they call me Juice,” he said.

Though he told jurors he would not be testifying, Kendle nevertheless recounted bits and pieces of his version of events, calling the men “forward aggressors” and parroting the language of the controversial law.

“They forced me to survive,” Kendle said. “I’m paid to protect. Having no duty to retreat, I stood my ground.”

Kendle claimed he couldn’t see the two men “who were behind positions of cover” when he fired.

The security guard was arrested one week after the shooting. The trial continues Wednesday.

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