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Trial begins for officers accused of corruption

©Associated Press
January 7, 2003

MIAMI -- Attitudes toward police officers drove jury selection Monday in the trial of 11 Miami officers accused of planting guns at the scene of police shootings or covering up their actions.

The trial began the same day John Timoney was sworn in as police chief. The former Philadelphia chief, who was once called America's best police officer by Esquire magazine, drew a distinction between good and bad officers.

"It is critically important that a police chief support his officers when they are out there doing the right thing," he said. "However, when an officer commits a wrong act with ... evil intent, then there must be no safe harbor for such an individual."

The 11 officers are charged as a group with a federal conspiracy to obstruct justice for allegedly planting guns after four police shootings that left three men dead and one wounded. Prosecutors say they intended to cover up police misconduct by planting guns and lying about it afterward to protect themselves and fellow officers.

All 11 defendants are Hispanic. Two retired white officers who pleaded guilty to conspiracy will be star witnesses against them. Some black officers on the same special units as the defendants weren't indicted and plan to testify for the defense.

During individual questioning of prospective jurors, a black truck driver was excused after he said he was "more or less" afraid of retribution if he voted to convict and were stopped later by a Miami officer. "Any way the verdict may go, the community is watching," he said.

Jury candidates answered more than 80 questions in advance and were asked in court about their dealings with law enforcement and the criminal justice system.

Questionnaires were sent to 1,606 people. Of those, 211 qualified to come to court, and 39 were brought in Monday. Twenty people in the initial pool are black. Seven women and two men of 16 people questioned individually were told to return for final consideration.

Names of the prospective jurors were not disclosed.

Killings of black and Hispanic men by Miami police and the subsequent acquittals of the officers involved triggered riots or street clashes six times from 1980 to 1995.

Many in Miami's minority communities are hostile to or suspicious of police "because of the great number of shootings of typically unarmed black young men," said Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.

Three-quarters of the 96 potential witnesses listed by prosecutors are in law enforcement, and 44 are with the Miami department.

The federal trial is expected to last three to five months.

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