Wrongly Jailed Man Wins After Miami Police Botch Murder Investigation
That’s how long Taiwan Smart was in jail thanks to the phony investigation and false testimony of two Miami police officers who were too busy trying to look good for the cameras of a “reality” show to actually investigate a double-murder.
The premise of “The First 48” is that the chance for cops to catch a murder suspect drop significantly if the killer is not found within 48 hours.
Two Miami detectives appearing on “The First 48” in 2009 badly wanted to beat their imaginary deadline – even if it meant ignoring the facts of a murder investigation and lying in court.
In front of TV cameras, Miami police detectives Fabio Sanchez and Eutimio Cepero decided they already had their man, interrogating Taiwan Smart for over eleven hours before charging him with the murders of his friends and roommates Jonathan Volcy, 18, and Raynathan Ray, 14, inside their Little Haiti apartment.
After telling the detectives the same story over and over – he had been inside the apartment but fled in terror before the killer started shooting – Smart begged the detectives for a polygraph test to no avail.
In charging Smart, the detectives chose not to investigate several other leads on the killings. They also ignored evidence that Smart’s foot size did not match any of the bloody footprints in the apartment.
The police also failed to search the apartment’s exterior for bullet casings – which would have corroborated Smart’s testimony that someone began shooting from outside through an open window.
But most damning of all was the perjury.
At Smart’s probable cause hearing, detective Fabio Sanchez lied about the testimony of 18 year-old witness Ciara Armbrister’s interview.
While Armbrister told the detectives that she had previously heard an argument between one of the victims and a “Spanish guy,” Sanchez told the judge, “She could hear (Smart and the victims) arguing over drugs and money.”
But Armbrister had specifically stated that she had not heard Smart arguing with his either of the deceased men.
Detective Sanchez then lied a second time, saying, “Smart claims the shooter shot through the window, killing both victims,” when in fact Smart had repeatedly said he did not witness the murders.
“There is no evidence the shooting occurred outside. It occurred inside,” Sanchez told the judge, securing Smart’s eventual 19-month stay in jail.
Before Smart’s trial, as chronicled by the Miami New Times, evidence miraculously came to light that the real killer was in the same jail as Smart. After being released from jail, Smart found himself unable to get a decent job with two murder charges on his record and sued the Miami police for wrongful arrest.
Last week, the deplorable “investigation” manufactured by detectives Sanchez and Cepero cost the city of Miami nearly a million dollars in taxpayer money after a federal jury spent a mere three hours deliberating before awarding $850,000 to Smart for the wrongful arrest and imprisonment.
According to the Miami Herald:
“Had Miami detectives spent a little more time investigating and less time posing for TV shots and reenacting portions of what had happened outside the view of the cameras, they might have figured out that the murders occurred after Taiwan had fled the premises in fear of his life,” according to the suit by lawyers Joe Klock and Hilton Napoleon.
“But with an eye toward fame and notoriety for themselves and the city, the detectives plowed ahead with their ‘speedy’ theory of crime resolution and arrested, shamed and humiliated this young man, as well as depriving him of his freedom for 19 months.”
“The First 48” is ripe for major lawsuits after several instances of encouraging police officers to behave like action movie heroes.
As reported by the Miami New Times last year:
In Detroit on May 16, 2010, after First 48 videographers expressed a desire to achieve a “good show” and capture “great video footage,” police stormed a duplex in an impoverished neighborhood, according to a federal lawsuit. It was past midnight. All the streetlights had suddenly gone black. The cops were hunting for a murder suspect. As cameras rolled and dogs bayed madly, city police fired a flash-bang grenade through a front window.
“Police!” one officer cried. The grenade exploded next to a living-room couch where a 7-year-old girl, Aiyana Jones, slept. From the patio, a cop lowered a submachine gun and fired into the house, striking the girl in the head. Upon entry, however, the cops realized they’d raided the wrong house. Their suspect lived next door. The officer who fired the gun, Joseph Weekley, was indicted for manslaughter and awaits trial. First 48 producer Allison Howard pleaded guilty last year to obstruction of justice after she lied about “copying, showing, or giving video footage she shot of the raid to third parties,” Detroit prosecutors said. The episode was never aired.
While the drama saturated the city, 1,300 miles south in Houston, an innocent man named Cameron Coker languished inside a Harris County jail awaiting trial. In mid-July 2009, 16-year-old Eric Elizarraraz had been shot at an apartment complex just off Highway 6. The boy had confronted a group of men who’d insulted his girlfriend. At least three witnesses offered county deputies a similar description of the killer — tall, light-skinned, skinny — and later picked 18-year-old Coker out of a lineup. As cameras rolled, Coker, who professed innocence, was arrested and charged with murder.
In mid-2012, after spending 1,095 days in prison, Coker was released. Prosecutors’ closeout memo had cited “witness identification problems.”
“I couldn’t believe they did that to me,” Coker now tells New Times. “It was like a torture that no one should have to go through in this life.” Coker’s attorney, Vivian King, says she’s repeatedly asked The First 48’s producers to stop rebroadcasting the episode now that Coker has been exonerated, but they’ve declined. First 48 producers refused to comment for this article.
Miami Detective Fernando Bosch admitted under oath in 2011 that he has “play-acted” parts of investigations for The First 48 and couldn’t tell upon later viewing which parts were staged and which were real. “Most of [the detectives] do things like that,” he said.
Crucifying “The First 48” in print for encouraging terrible police behavior is all well and good – and they may very well be sued into oblivion – but a bigger question should be where are the arrests for the officers who spiked their investigation and lied in court to “get their man” in that 48 hour window.
For lying in court and letting an innocent man stay behind bars for nearly two years, Detective Fabio Sanchez should face trial.