Miami (CNSNews.com) - Five years after a state's attorney cleared them of any wrong-doing, five veteran Miami police officers have been indicted by a federal grand jury for allegedly conspiring to cover up their roles in the fatal shooting of a 73-year-old Miami man.
The officers were part of a SWAT team that gunned down Richard Brown, an African-American, in a hail of 122 bullets while serving a warrant at his home in March of 1996.
Charged with two counts of obstructing justice were Sgt. Jose Acuna, Officer Ralph Fuentes, Detective Arturo Beguiristain, Detective Eliezer Lopez and Officer Alejandro Macias.
The indictment rocked a police department already tainted by scandal. Last September, two Miami police officers were charged with attempting to cover up the shooting death of an unarmed homeless man by allegedly planting a gun at the scene. And just last month, a local newspaper exposed three undercover Miami narcotics officers who had allegedly been selling information to drug dealers for years.
In the middle of this latest crisis, hundreds of police officers from different precincts and departments all over the city gathered outside the federal building in downtown Miami this week to protest what they call an "abuse of power by the U.S. Attorney's Office."
"This case was investigated by Internal Affairs, it was investigated by the state attorney's office and the U.S. Attorney's Office even looked into it through the FBI," said Miami Fraternal Order of Police President Al Cotera.
"Five years ago. I don't want to play the race card but it's clear that there was some political pressure put on the U.S. Attorney's office by some special interest groups and these indictments were handed down to appease these groups."
Assistant U.S. Attorney Barry Sabin denied there was any political pressure involved. "The indictment returned by the grand jury was based solely upon the facts, and any suggestion to the contrary is wholly without merit," Sabin said.
The officers insist they opened fire on Brown, a suspected drug dealer, only after he fired at them first.
The indictment stops short of accusing the officers of planting a gun, however it does single out Acuna, a SWAT supervisor, as the person who emerged from Brown's residence with a .38-caliber revolver and presented it to another officer on the scene as the weapon allegedly used by Brown.
The shooting was immediately investigated by Internal Affairs and the officers were subsequently cleared of any misconduct.
A year later, in 1997, the state attorney's office opened an investigation, which also led to a conclusion that the officers were innocent of any wrongdoing.
Then, perhaps as a harbinger of things to come, the city of Miami last year agreed to pay $2.5 million to settle a civil lawsuit that had been filed in the name of Brown's 14-year-old daughter Janeka, who was inside the home at the time of the shooting. Attorneys for the city had decided that inconsistencies in the officers' accounts of the shooting could ultimately cost them the case and fuel the public's growing distrust of the police department.
Those same inconsistencies motivated Nathaniel Wilcox, executive director of PULSE (People United to Lead the Struggle for Equality), to examine the case more closely and pass his conclusions on to local and federal authorities.
"I found overwhelming evidence that contradicts the officers' versions of what happened that day," Wilcox said. "I'm not a forensics expert, nor do I have any such background. But I know these officers were wrong. And I don't want to get into the black and white thing but it obviously played a part. The city agreed and they settled this thing quickly and quietly."