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As federal indictments continue to rain down on Miami police officers, the U.S. Attorney’s Office passed the first strategic test of its core case alleging that more than a dozen officers conspired to justify police shootings by lying and planting guns at crime scenes. In a 24-page order, Miami U.S. District Judge Alan S. Gold of the Southern District of Florida last month rejected a broad defense challenge that, if successful, would have splintered the case into at least four trials. “We’re disappointed, but not surprised.” says Miami lawyer Richard Sharpstein, who represents two of the officers under indictment. “It’s a minor but not insignificant victory for [the U.S. Attorney].” “I wish it had gone the other way,” said Miami attorney William D. Matthewman, who represents another officer. “One bright light is that the severance decision was made early in the pretrial stage, so that all the defense counsel know that they are in the case together and can prepare accordingly.” Indeed, it was an important boost for an office that has sometimes found it difficult in recent years to nail high-profile misconduct cases involving public officials at trial. In the Miami cops’ case, a united defense team for the indicted officers had filed hundreds of pages of arguments contending, in effect, that prosecutors Allan B. Kaiser and Curtis B. Miner got it wrong. They argued prosecutors erred in presenting an overarching conspiracy charge in the 15-count superseding indictment issued by a grand jury in September. According to the government, a conspiracy connects four police-involved shootings between November 1995 and June 1997, including the shooting death of 72-year-old Richard O. Brown in his apartment in Miami’s Overtown neighborhood in 1996. But lawyers for the 11 indicted officers asked Judge Gold to break up the government’s criminal case on the grounds that the indictment describes multiple, different conspiracies, not a single scheme. According to the defense lawyers, their clients were wrongly joined in the indictment, prejudicing their individual cases. “The court respectfully disagrees,” was Gold’s response in his Feb. 13 order. It wasn’t the only time Gold used the phrase before rejecting a defense argument. The indictment, which Gold found to be procedurally sound, represents the biggest police scandal to hit South Florida since the notorious Miami River Cops drug corruption case of the mid-1980s. A year ago, five officers were indicted on conspiracy and cover-up charges in Brown’s death during a March 12, 1996, drug raid. They were officers Jose Acuna, Arturo Beguiristain, Ralph Fuentes, Eliezer Lopez and Alejandro “Alex” Macias. Six months later, six more officers were included in a superseding indictment that wrapped the Brown case into an expanded conspiracy case that included three more shootings. These additional cases involved alleged “throw downs” — handguns that renegade police officers sometimes leave at crime scenes to suggest a suspect was armed and that violent police measures were justified; they typically carry such guns in a sock to prevent fingerprints. The additional shootings cited in the indictment were the so-called I-395 case in which Derrick Wiltshire and Antonio Young died Nov. 7, 1995; the April 1996 shooting on Northwest 43rd Street at suspected purse snatcher Steven Carter; and the June 1996 Coconut Grove, Fla., shooting of drifter Daniel Hoban. The six indicted officers are Jesus “Jesse” Aguero, Jorge Garcia, Israel “Izzy” Gonzalez, Jose “Pepe” Quintero, Oscar Ronda and Jorge Castello. Aguero has since been fired. Former officers William Hames and John Mervolion pleaded guilty and agreed to be witnesses for the government. At one time or another, all these officers served with one of two plainclothes units, the now-disbanded Street Narcotics Unit or the Crime Suppression Team. Prosecutors have told the court that Hames and Mervolion will “testify about the nature of the conspiracy, the culture of the SNU and CST units in which they worked, the ‘code of silence’ among police officers, the use of ‘throw downs’ or ‘socks,’ and similar matters.” Last week, the federal grand jury shook things up once again. Officer Macias, charged nearly a year ago in Brown’s death, was indicted for making false statements in 1999 during the investigation of his fatal shooting of a suicidal man, Jesse Runnels, during a standoff with police. Authorities now believe a menacing-looking toy gun found at the scene, originally attributed to Runnels, was planted. And in a separate indictment, the grand jury charged Aguero, Garcia, Castello and a new officer, Wilfredo Perez, with brutalizing a handcuffed suspect. In ruling two weeks earlier that the original gun-planting conspiracy indictment was fit to proceed to trial, Judge Gold considered several technical aspects of the prosecution’s theory of the case and found them valid. He found, for example, that the officers were not improperly lumped together in the indictment, but were tied together sufficiently by a series of “common threads” that the government alleges link the shootings. Those threads include the commonality of the officers involved, the allegations of stolen and planted guns and manipulated evidence, and false statements by the officers. “The government contends that such premeditated conduct shows action taken ahead of time with an illegal goal in mind,” Gold wrote in his order. One at a time, Gold went on to cut down other arguments of prejudice the defense hoped might bust up the government’s case. No, the case is not so complex as to bewilder a jury, Gold wrote. No, it doesn’t look to be an unwieldy “mega-trial.” No, it doesn’t serve the “interests of judicial economy” to have multiple trials about essentially the same thing. And no, there’s no convincing argument that some officers might be prejudiced by the “spillover effect” of being linked to shootings in which they didn’t participate. The case is now set for trial early next year. In his order, Gold estimated that the trial should take no more than three months.

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