Jury convicts Miami police officers of corruption
Thursday, April 10, 2003
MIAMI -- In the biggest Miami police scandal in a generation, a federal jury convicted four officers of corruption Wednesday for planting a gun on an unarmed homeless man or lying to cover it up.
The convicted officers each face up to 10 years in prison at sentencing Aug. 22.
Three others were acquitted and the judge declared a mistrial for four more.
The 11 officers were charged after four police shootings wounded one man and left three other people dead. The shootings happened between 1995 and 1997, a time when Miami was under international pressure to crack down on roving gangs of armed robbers preying on tourists.
Police ruled all the shootings justified.
Federal prosecutors, however, said the defendants thought they were "untouchable." The men were charged with conspiracy to obstruct justice for allegedly plotting to plant guns on unarmed suspects, misleading investigators and lying under oath to protect each other.
Lead prosecutor Allan Kaiser said he would have liked to convict everyone, but "what we have is a seal of approval of the jury convicting four police officers, telling us what we did was right and just."
Officer Alex Macias, who was acquitted, criticized prosecutors and expressed sympathy for his convicted colleagues.
"The ones that should be under indictment should be the government for all the lying and tampering they have done," Macias said.
Richard Sharpstein, who represented convicted officers Art Beguiristain and Jorge Castello, said he was confident the judge would acquit them after a hearing set for May 14.
Hugo Rodriguez, attorney for convicted officer Jesse Aguero, said he was disappointed.
"I don't think the jury understood the issue of conspiracy," he said.
The jurors convicted the four officers of obstruction and conspiracy in the 1997 shooting of Daniel Hoban, a homeless alcoholic. Hoban was wounded in the leg by Castello, who thought the man's Walkman was a gun being used in a robbery.
Aguero was accused of planting a .45-caliber handgun near Hoban. Beguiristain, Castello and Oscar Ronda were convicted for their roles in the cover-up.
All the officers allegedly involved were acquitted of wrongdoing in the shooting of a 72-year-old drug suspect who died in a barrage of 123 bullets as his 14-year-old great-granddaughter crouched feet away on their bathroom floor. The girl was not wounded and later won a $2.5 million settlement from the city.
The jury deadlocked on two officers accused of covering up the shooting deaths of two robbers gunned down after they made a dramatic leap from a highway overpass while fleeing police.
In the fourth shooting, Aguero fired three shots at a purse-snatching suspect, missing each time. That shooting was rolled into the conspiracy charge shared by all officers, so it was unclear how the jury weighed that incident.
In the cases declared mistrials, the jury failed to reach a unanimous decision on all charges against three officers and was split between acquittals and deadlocks on the fourth.
Although prosecutors asked the jury to focus on what happened after the shootings, the defense said all of the shootings were legitimate.
The officers, once members of elite undercover squads, stood with blank expressions as the verdicts were read. Attorney Al Levin winced and shook his head after his client, Ronda, was convicted on three of four counts against him.
Jurors left the building without commenting.
The police shootings were the city's worst police scandal since the 1980s, when rogue officers peddled cocaine they stole from drug traffickers. In that case, more than 100 officers were arrested, fired or disciplined.
Outrage over the shootings led to the chief's resignation last November, policy changes, the creation of a civilian shooting review board and millions of dollars paid out to settle lawsuits. But the trial was closely watched to see whether any officers actually would be convicted.
Miami police chief John Timoney said three convicted officers would be fired, Aguero already has been dismissed, and the rest would remain on administrative leave pending an internal investigation. Timoney said he was concerned with the actions of the acquitted officers after the shootings.