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Two weeks after 72-year-old Richard O. Brown died in a barrage of police bullets during a drug raid on his Miami home shortly before midnight on March 12, 1996, Fort Lauderdale, Fla., lawyer Barbara Heyer visited Brown’s ravaged Overtown apartment with a screwdriver in hand. A SWAT team and narcotics officers from the Miami Police Department had raided Brown’s apartment that night because a narcotics unit reported seeing people dealing cocaine from Brown’s house. Police logs of the fatal raid stated that Brown fired two shots at the officers and that they had fired five shots in return. But the deceased man’s bedroom door, riddled with dozens of holes from police bullets, told another story. Heyer was hired by Brown’s family a week after the shooting. Using the screwdriver, Heyer, with the help of ballistics expert Ed Whittaker, removed the door from its hinges. Later, in his lab, Whitaker examined the splintered door. Heyer’s thoroughness paid off. Whittaker and other experts hired by Heyer discovered that, contrary to police reports, the Miami Police SWAT Team and the Street Narcotics Unit officers had fired 122 bullets into the apartment on the night of March 12. “The first in a long string of lies and unsuccessful attempts to cover up a horrible crime,” Heyer says derisively. Based on this and other evidence, Heyer filed a civil rights lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Miami on behalf of Brown’s daughter Janeka — who, as a 14-year-old, survived the raid by hiding behind a toilet. The suit culminated in March of last year with a $2.5 million settlement for Janeka. The suit also had broader reverberations. In March of this year, a federal grand jury issued criminal indictments against five officers involved in the Brown shooting, charging them with lying and fabricating evidence in a conspiracy to cover up what happened on the night of the shooting. A federal grand jury also is investigating more than a dozen cases in which Miami officers are suspected of misconduct that includes planting evidence and lying. The Richard Brown case is the latest in a string of high-profile police misconduct lawsuits filed by Heyer, which have made her one of the most prominent civil rights attorneys in Florida. Heyer generally files suit based on the Civil Rights Act, Title 42 of the U.S. Code, Section 1983, which permits “civil action for deprivation of rights.” These cases are extremely difficult and time-consuming, because police departments generally throw tremendous legal firepower into defending their officers, right or wrong. Hollywood lawyer Keith Schafer, who originally was contacted by the Brown family about handling the case, says he immediately referred the matter to Heyer because of her expertise in police misconduct cases. “She’s very thorough, very tough, and she never rolls over,” says Schafer, a former Broward prosecutor. Heyer, 50, says she feels drawn to cases involving people who may have been unjustly injured or killed by the police. “I love helping victims and families who have no one else to turn to,” she says. “There’s not many areas of law where you get to perform such a public service.” HORROR AT HEINOUS ACTS Heyer, born in what was then West Germany, received her law degree from Nova Southeastern University in 1981, then joined the Palm Beach County public defender’s office, where she handled juvenile misdemeanor cases. In 1983, she opened a private practice with her husband, Marc Gold. She got involved in police misconduct cases with the first case she and her husband accepted. The client was Joe Bethel, a 12-year-old boy who was caught by a Delray Beach Sheriff’s Department officer in a department store after closing. The officer unleashed a police dog on the boy; Bethel was severely bitten on the neck. Heyer and Gold filed a civil rights lawsuit on Bethel’s behalf in federal district court in 1984. While they lost that case, the gruesome nature of the incident inspired her to take other cases of people claiming abuse at the hands of police. “It’s still hard to believe that people in such positions of authority can commit such heinous acts,” she says. In 1994, Palm Beach County paid her client, Brian Peterson, $2.75 million to settle his federal civil rights lawsuit, which was filed by Heyer and her husband in 1987. While Peterson was detained in the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Department stockade, he was beaten by another inmate as deputies watched. Peterson’s brain stem was battered so badly that he lost the ability to walk, talk and eat on his own. Gold left the two-lawyer practice in 1996 to become a Broward Circuit judge; Heyer continued on as a sole practitioner. In 1998, she convinced a South Florida federal jury in another civil rights case to award $6 million, including $1 million in punitive damages, to Betty Willingham, who was shot eight times by a Boynton Beach police officer in 1987. The Police Department claimed she had attacked officers with a knife while they were struggling to arrest her brother. The shooting sparked several days of race-related unrest in the city. The $6 million judgment is on appeal. UNEARTHING DISCREPANCIES When Heyer took on the Richard Brown case, she immediately filed a public records request. The officers involved had been cleared of wrongdoing by the department’s homicide and internal affairs unit, a department shooting review panel, the Miami-Dade state attorney’s office, and a coroner’s inquest. But her records request turned up many discrepancies in the case. The Miami Police Department’s log of the incident claimed that only five shots had been fired by the officers, contrary to her experts’ findings. She also discovered that key witnesses and officers directly involved in the shooting had never been interviewed. Her evidence strongly suggested that the .38 revolver and cocaine attributed to Brown had been planted. Even Miami assistant city attorney Charles Mays suggested in an internal memo that a cover-up took place. Because of the damning documents Heyer brought to light, she was able to force the city into accepting the $2.5 million pretrial settlement. Mays refuses to comment on the Brown case. But he says that Heyer’s “depth of knowledge was impressive.” Michael Palahach, a Miami lawyer who has filed suit in Miami-Dade Circuit Court against Miami police in another fatal police shooting, notes that Heyer’s achievement was particularly impressive because it’s difficult to hold cities liable for actions by police officers who violate a person’s constitutional rights. That’s because the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1985 that municipalities only can be held liable if it’s proven that the violation occurred because of an unconstitutional municipal policy. “In another lawyer’s hands, the case would have ended in summary judgment for the city,” Palahach says. HELPING A RETARDED CONVICT Heyer currently is involved in a very different type of high-profile case. While she doesn’t usually handle criminal defense matters, she accepted a Broward Circuit Court appointment to represent Jerry Frank Townsend, a retarded man with an IQ of 51 who spent 21 years in prison on charges that he committed four murders in Broward County. He recently was cleared of the crimes when DNA tests pointed to another suspect. But Townsend remains in prison for two murders and a rape that occurred in Miami and which he confessed to in 1979 at the same time he confessed to the Broward crimes. Because the Broward convictions were overturned, however, Townsend now is eligible for parole. Both Broward and Miami Dade police officials currently are reviewing the interviewing techniques used by their officers to obtain the confessions from Townsend. Miami-Dade prosecutors say there is no reason to question the validity of Townsend’s confessions in the Miami crimes. But Heyer argues that the Miami-Dade convictions should be overturned as well. “Given what took place in Broward, there is no reason to delay getting to the bottom of why the Miami investigation was also flawed,” Heyer says. In another widely publicized civil rights case, Heyer goes to trial next month in federal district court in Jacksonville in the case of Travis Sewell, who was shot in the back in 1995 by a Jacksonville Police Department officer. Sewell, says he was shot while lying face down on the ground after being apprehended by police. The police say Sewell shot first. But Heyer notes that no gun or shell casings were found at the crime scene. Heyer says bad police shootings will keeping happening — and police departments will continue trying to cover them up — at least partly because police discriminate against minorities and low-income people. In addition, she says, too many police officers receive inadequate training. “Barbers require more hours of training,” she says. What’s badly needed, she contends, is greater independent review of shooting incidents. “Without an independent set of eyes looking under every rock,” Heyer says, “you’re rarely going to see a serious review of police shootings.”

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