A federal jury concluded in an emotional weeklong civil trial that the 2007 shooting of two unarmed black men by Miami-Dade police officers during a traffic stop was justified.
The Miami federal jury could not reach an unanimous verdict, but the parties agreed to accept a majority decision in the civil rights trial. The split was 7-1 in the favor of officers Ryan Robinson and Michael Mendez.
The November 2007 shooting occurred in Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood after a Cadillac SUV driven by Frisco Blackwood was pulled over for not making a full stop at a red light while making a right turn.
Robinson and Mendez fired multiple shots after they said the vehicle started backing up toward them. Blackwood and his front-seat passenger Michael Knight were killed. Back-seat passenger Latasha Cure was wounded.
Knight’s family and Cure filed suit, claiming a violation of civil rights and assault and battery.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Edwin Torres dismissed the Miami-Dade Police Department and the county as defendants on summary judgment.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, however, ruled in December that Robinson and Mendez were not protected by qualified immunity. The appellate court said the officers could not shield themselves from civil liability based on their argument that they were acting in the scope of their official duties.
Both officers were exonerated of any criminal wrongdoing in the shooting. They remain on the force, but Robinson was placed on paid administrative leave in April after being arrested for drunken driving when he allegedly ran his patrol car into a shopping cart in the parking lot at the Cutler Ridge shopping center, injuring two people.
During trial, plaintiffs attorney Ben Kuehne told the jury the Cadillac SUV simply lurched backward when Knight put it into park and the officers were nowhere near the vehicle and hardly in danger.
He said Robinson and Mendez were keyed up after chasing an armed robber just before the traffic stop. “They were primed that there was going to be trouble and, as it turned out, they made it happen,” Kuehne said.
He said Knight’s mother and plaintiff, Cheryl Denise Kerr, sobbed loudly in the courtroom after the verdict.
“She was inconsolable,” Kuehne said. “The reality is her son is gone forever, and nobody is held accountable.”
Knight was attending Miami Dade College. Both he and Blackwood were on probation. They were returning from a nightclub when the officers pulled them over.
Both Robinson and Mendez testified at the trial.
Cure told the jury the SUV didn’t move at all toward the officers before they started shooting.
After the jury said it was hopelessly deadlocked Monday, Torres accepted the verdict under seal and gave both sides 24 hours to advise whether they would waive a unanimous verdict. They agreed, and the verdict was read late Tuesday.
“The way it shook out procedurally was a little bit unusual,” said Assistant County Attorney Ezra Greenberg. He tried the case along with Assistant County Attorneys Bernie Pastor and Rachel Walters.
Greenberg said its well-established that a vehicle moving toward an officer can be considered a deadly weapon and the U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled officers can continue shooting when they feel their lives are in danger.
Kuehne described the crime scene “like the shootout at the O.K. Corral.”
Miami attorney Jeffery Allen served as lead co-counsel. Kuehne associate Michael Davis also served as plaintiffs attorney.
The attorneys said the plaintiffs are mulling over whether to appeal.
Despite the verdict, Kuehne said it’s important for the public learn about police excessive use of force against unarmed citizens.
“Having tried the case in a public forum and exposing police conduct does have some corrective benefits, and hopefully the community will pay better attention to the use of deadly force under circumstances where it clearly could have been avoided,” Kuehne said.