Miami prosecutor: police brutality cases often complex
When Miami's black leaders began to look around for someone to blame for the recent riots, many of them focused on Janet Reno, who as state's attorney here is the chief prosecutor for Dade County.
The rioting erupted after four white policemen were acquitted May 17 of a number of charges, including murder, in the death of a black man, Arthur McDuffie, who was severely beaten in an encounter with police last December.
In an interview, Miss Reno explains why complex cases of alleged police brutality are often difficult to prosecute.
How could the jury hand down a not-guilty verdict in the McDuffle case?
"You had a chaotic scene at night," Miss Reno said. "It's rare that people look at the same scene and come up with the same ver sion. People are not sure who did what."
Because "I didn't have any innocent bystanders as witnesses," three policemen were granted immunity in return for their testimony. "There may have been a tendency on the part of the jury to say: 'If they got off, these should get off.'"
The McDuffle case was not an isolated incident in the minds of many blacks here. What happened in the Nathaniel LeFleur case, where the Dade Metropolitan Police broke into the wrong house on a drug raid and allegedly beat up a black man?
"They should be sued for negligence," but simple negligence is not a criminal offense, she said, explaining why she did not bring charges against the police.
Mr. LeFleur opened his door, saw armed police, and slammed the door, she said. (A police spokesman says the man slammed the door on the hand of one of the officers. The man ran to a closet then went to his bedroom, she said. An officer grabbed him, hitting him with a revolver in the process. Later Mr. LeFleur claimed his skull had been fractured. Medican examination showed no skull fracture.
What about the case in which a white Florida highway patrolman allegedly raped an 11-year-old black girl?
"There was no physical evidence of rape." Even the girl's uncle never alleged she had been raped, Miss Reno said.
Miss Reno said she filed charges against the trooper for assault, not rape, because he had only fondled that girl. The court, she said, offered to negotiate a settlement ordering the officer to take psychiatric treatment. Miss Reno refused to negotiate. But the girl's uncle and mother agreed to the treatment alternative proposed by the court and treatment was ordered.
What happened in the fatal shooting by a policemen of a black man behind a Hialeah, Fla., warehouse?
"I don't think race was involved." It happened at night, during high winds, after repeated burglaries at the warehouse and after two cars had been spotted driving slowly by the warehouse several times, she said.
The officer cried "halt" twice and "freeze" once before the suspect stopped. The officer then made the suspect lean up against the warehouse wall to be searched. But, in violation of police orders, the officer had his gun cocked and in searching the man, the officer placed the butt of his gun against the small of the man's back. The gun went off, hitting the back of the man's head.
The officer was "shocked and appalled" at what he had done and presented strong evidence against himself after waiving immunity, to the grand jury, said Miss Reno. The court found him not guilty of negligence.
Why aren't these facts more widely known among the black community?
Miss Reno says she has repeatedly offered to let anyone examine her office's files on any of these cases. But so far, she said, no black leaders and only one black reporter have taken her up on the offer.