Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Murder Investigation Miami Style

A recent Miami case provides rare public airing of a murder investigation gone terribly wrong as the skilled work of a public defender and a judge with too much integrity to ignore the facts, prevented a very likely miscarriage of justice. In the State of Florida v. Terric Jeffrey, (11th judicial circuit, No. 03 --- 16977A). Judge Roberto M. Pineiro, a former prosecutor, granted defendant's motion to suppress statement.

After 9 years as a prosecutor, some of which were spent in the Major Crimes Division prosecuting murder cases, and 12 years as a judge in the criminal division, this court is well aware of the mantra: first investigate then interrogate. You first gather all your facts. This allows you to narrow your scope to a single suspect. It provides you with the evidence to refute his putative alibi thereby sealing off all possible bolt holes. This time tested procedure assures you’ve got the right suspect and can confront him with indisputable facts during an interrogation; thereby increasing your chances of cornering him into a confession.(2)

Judge Pineiro’s mantra may be a considerable idealization, but the facts of Terric Jeffrey’s case turned out to be a grotesque inversion. The victim, Leon Leonard III, was a fifteen month old child who died of blows received at one of two different locations and left alone with three separate men, only one of whom was the defendant, Terric Jeffrey, the boyfriend of the child’s mother.

Since the physical evidence suggests only two locations and only three possible perpetrators, surely evidence must have been located to exclude two of the suspects and one of the locations before focusing on Terric Jeffrey having committed the murder. (3)
Instead Miami Police detectives searched one house, the one shared by the mother, Monique Johnson and the defendant, while ignoring the other house where the victim was present and where another possible suspect, Leon Leonard Jr. the victim’s father, resided. Both Johnson and Jeffrey, the latter who is reported to be “mentally handicapped” by his attorney, were subject to hours of questioning, while Leonard, the son of a Miami police officer, was never questioned. Having extracted a confession from Jeffrey, a semi-retarded man who apparently believed he would be released after confessing, Miami detectives immediately ceased any continuing investigations.

Johnson and Jeffrey picked up the child at the Leonard house after an evening at the movies. Johnson reported that the baby was “whinny and fussy” and indeed it was her decision to obtain some of the pain reliever Motrin from a neighbor that left the child in Jeffrey’s hands. Yet the police never investigated whether the child was mistreated at the Leonard’s house instead focusing exclusively on the mother and her boy friend. Prosecutors argued that Johnson’s report of the baby being whinny and fussy was a lie, but as Judge Pineiro points out, that eliminates any reason for Johnson to have left the child alone with Jeffrey. “No whining, no fussing --- no need to get Motrin --- no need to leave the baby alone with the defendant” (9).

Instead of the investigation, detectives subjected the mentally challenged suspect to nine hours of interrogation with no breaks or meals. The confession finally made tracked the police officer’s own formulations so closely that one of the detectives actually says on the tape recording of the confession, “Do you recall all of this. I don’t want to put words in your mouth. I recall you telling me this.” (16)

After suppressing Jeffrey’s statement, Judge Pineiro went on to an unusual statement from the bench.

Prior to this hearing I was not convinced that it might be good practice to video tape the entirety of a defendant’s interrogation. That it would not be practical. Given the evidence adduced at these hearings I have come to believe that, regardless of the practicality, it might be imperative. (17)

We cannot say that this case is typical. Although the judge refused to infer an association, the opinion noted the fact that Leon Leonard, Jr. was the son of a Miami Police officer. But whether the case represents an unusual effort to protect a fellow officer’s family it reflects features of police investigation that have become an endemic feature of a time in which policing has been shaped by the war on drugs. In this time, a vast body of low level offenders is viewed as a collective risk to American society and the mass imprisonment of many has been a primary solution.



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