Fred Grimm

Fred Grimm: In Miami’s Liberty City, fear once again trumps justice

FILE--Demarcus Alexander, jailed on a murder charge related to the December fatal shooting of Ciara Lee and her 2-year-old son, Devin Franklin, smiles at family and friends in the courtroom before his pre-trial hearing Friday, April 8, 2011, at the Richard E. Gerstein Justice Building in Miami.
FILE--Demarcus Alexander, jailed on a murder charge related to the December fatal shooting of Ciara Lee and her 2-year-old son, Devin Franklin, smiles at family and friends in the courtroom before his pre-trial hearing Friday, April 8, 2011, at the Richard E. Gerstein Justice Building in Miami. Miami Herald file

Crime scene technicians had dutifully numbered the bullet holes gun thugs had left in in the dingy stucco walls of Ciara Lee’s little home. Around the front door, they had marked 64 through 73. Along the west side of the house, 78, 79, 80, 81, 82, 83, 84, 85, 86, 87.

It was the gruesome numerology that had become all too familiar to Liberty City. More than 100 bullets had been fired by two gunmen with assault weapons. Walls were penetrated. Windows were smashed. Three people inside were hit.

The hell of it was that the killers were shooting up the wrong house. Instead of the rival gangbanger they had been pursuing that night in 2010, they had mistakenly murdered two utter innocents, Ciara Lee, 24, and her 2-year-old son, Devin, both asleep in bed when the barrage began. Ciara’s cousin, Tony Lee, 49, also was shot but survived with a leg wound.

Killing a mother and child as they slept was outrageous enough. And Ciara had been law enforcement — a state corrections officer. “She was hard working. Just trying to make a life for herself,” Derek Thompson, her stricken father, told me the next morning.

But there were more outrages to come.

Two years later, prosecutors were forced to drop charges against Demarcus Alexander, 24, one of the suspected gunmen that night. A key witness tying Alexander to the shooting suddenly clammed up. Officially, she “refused to cooperate,” but in Liberty City gangland prosecutions, that phrase has become a euphemism for “terrified into silence.” She was the second witness in the case against Alexander to suddenly and mysteriously recant.

Well, not so mysteriously. Alexander was a known leader with “Str8 Drop,” a notorious, murderous Miami gang. Street mythology holds that Str8 Drop goes after witnesses, their homes and their families. Prosecutors managed to convict Tavares Williams, 28, in the Ciara and Devin Lee killings, but only because crime technicians were able to link him to DNA found on the murder weapon. (He’s serving a 22-year sentence.) But without a witness, the charges against Alexander were dropped.

Fear, once again, trumped justice.

But prosecutors had another shot at Demarcus Alexander, who had been charged in the 2007 robbery and murder of Garvin Webster outside his Allapattah home. Co-defendant Tyree Walker, 16 at the time of the shooting, had agreed to testify against Alexander in return for a more lenient sentence.

My colleague David Ovalle reported Thursday that Walker, suddenly but maybe not so mysteriously, had decided he would no longer testify against the Str8 Drop gang leader. No matter that refusing to cooperate would wreck his plea deal.

So yet another murder case against Demarcus Alexander was undone by the prevailing rule of the streets.

Alexander remains in prison, serving out the remainder of a 20-year prison sentence on an earlier armed robbery conviction. But no jury will hear witnesses describe his culpability in the murders of Garvin Webster, Ciara Lee and baby Devin Lee.

Because along the fearful streets, forgetting has become a synonym for survival.

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