Rachel Walters and Ezra S. Greenberg, Assistant County Attorneys, Miami-Dade County Attorney’s Office. (J. Albert Diaz)
Case: Michael Knight through Cheryl Denise Kerr, as personal representative, and Latasha Cure v. Ryan Robinson, Michael Mendez and Miami-Dade County
Case no: 09-23462-CIV
Description: Excessive force, civil rights violations
Filing date: Nov. 12, 2009
Trial dates:June 9-24, 2014
Judge: U.S. Magistrate Judge Edwin Torres, Miami
Plaintiff attorneys: Ben Kuehne and Michael Davis, Law Office of Benedict P. Kuehne, Miami; and Jeffery Allen, Law Office of Jeffery Allen, Miami
Defense attorneys: Assistant County Attorneys Ezra Greenberg, Bernie Pastor and Rachel Walters, Miami-Dade county attorney’s office, Miami
Verdict amount: For the defense
Details: In 2007, two unarmed black men were shot by Miami-Dade police officers during a traffic stop. The shooting occurred in Little Haiti after officers tried to pull over a car driven by Frisco Blackwood for failing to make a full stop at a red light while making a right turn. Officers Ryan Robinson and Michael Mendez fired 27 shots after they said the vehicle started backing toward them. Blackwood and his front-seat passenger, Michael Knight, were killed. Back-seat passenger Latasha Cure was wounded.
Knight’s family and Cure sued the department and the officers, seeking $2.75 million plus punitive damages. They claimed the police department did not properly train and supervise the officers.
In August 2012, Torres dismissed the department and county as defendants on summary judgment.
In December 2013, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit ruled 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 and remained on the force. Robinson was placed on administrative leave in April after being arrested for drunken driving when he allegedly ran his patrol car into a shopping cart in a parking lot, injuring two people.
Plaintiffs case: During trial, Cure testified the car was stopped when the officers began shooting. Knight’s mother testified about the loss of her son. The plaintiffs also called a police practices expert, Robert Pusins of the Broward Sheriff’s Office, who testified the officers unreasonably put themselves in danger and should not have fired into a moving vehicle.
They also called Dr. John Marraccini, a South Miami forensic pathologist, who performed independent autopsies of the victims. He testified that if the first shot hit the driver in the head, he would not have been able to put the car into forward and reverse.
Defense case: Both officers testified Blackwood was trying to run them over as the car started speeding at them in reverse twice.
The defense claimed Marraccini’s testimony ultimately helped them because it proved Blackwood could not have been shot in the head during the initial volley.
Detectives Terry Goldstone and Richard Raphael, who interviewed Cure shortly after the shooting, testified she gave a sworn statement that night that the officers began shooting when the car started heading toward them. The defense claimed the statement, which was entered into evidence, eroded Cure’s credibility, stating she changed her story after the lawsuit was filed.
The defense also called Mark Schuman, an assistant Miami-Dade medical examiner, who testified the bullet entry wound in the driver was consistent with a driver operating a vehicle at the time of the shooting.
Additionally, former Leon County Sheriff Ken Katsaris, a police practices expert, testified the officers’ actions were reasonable.
Outcome: Jurors were deadlocked after a two-week trial. On June 23, Torres accepted the verdict under seal, giving both sides 24 hours to advise whether they would waive a unanimous verdict. They agreed, and the 7-1 verdict for the defense was read June 24.
Comments: “The way it shook out procedurally was a little bit unusual,” Greenberg said.
Post-verdict: Plaintiffs are weighing a possible appeal. The county plans a motion for taxable costs, which includes witness fees and other trial costs.