September 19, 2017

Last Miami prosecutor to try a cop in a shooting set to do it again — 28 years later

 
By David O'Valle
 

Don Horn’s career is coming full circle.

In 1989, the young black prosecutor became a local legal legend by helping convict a Miami cop who fatally shot a motorcyclist in Overtown, a killing that sparked riots during an era fraught with racial tension.

For nearly three decades afterward, in a state that affords police wide latitude to use deadly force, Miami-Dade prosecutors had declined to charge a police officer for an on-duty shooting.

That changed last month, when a North Miami cop was charged in the shooting of a behavioral therapist lying on his back, hands aloft, begging officers not to shoot — a confrontation captured on bystander video.

Horn will spearhead what again promises to be a contentious and closely watched case.

It’s an unusual role for Horn, 60, given that the manslaughter trial of Miami Police Officer William Lozano in 1989 was his last major criminal trial.

For the past 15 years, Horn has overseen policy, training and administration as a chief assistant for State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle — and served as a valuable figure tasked with explaining to the public the most controversial of cases, often ones involving police officers.

Horn has taken on his new assignment with zeal. “I’ve already been working on things in my head: arguments and closings, and how we’ll prove this and that,” Horn said in a recent interview. “We’ll have stuff we didn’t have before — especially that video.”

The North Miami police officer, Jonathan Aledda, is charged with attempted manslaughter and misdemeanor culpable negligence. He’ll be arraigned May 12. A trial is likely months away.

Aledda and fellow officers rushed to the scene after a 911 caller reported a man possibly armed with a gun. The man was Arnaldo Rios, 26, who is severely autistic and wandered away from his group home. The object: a silver toy truck. Behavioral therapist Charles Kinsey was trying to coax Rios back when police came. The standoff ended when Aledda fired three shots from an M4 carbine without a scope, hitting Kinsey in the thigh.

For months, prosecutors pored over witness statements, crime-scene evidence and the video. Behind closed doors, during heated debates among colleagues, Horn offered to try the case.

Ultimately, State Attorney Fernandez Rundle did something she hasn’t done since she became the county’s top prosecutor in 1993: charged a cop for a shooting. She concluded that Aledda was not legally justified in firing from over 150 feet away, especially because two cops who were within 20 feet didn’t feel threatened.

North Miami’s police union president has called Aledda “a hero” and blasted Fernandez Rundle, saying she was “politically motivated.” And he has already singled out Horn because the conviction of Lozano — the last Florida officer convicted for a shooting — was overturned by an appeals court. Lozano was acquitted at a second trial.

“I think Don Horn is trying to vindicate himself from the Lozano case he lost,” Police Benevolent Association President John Rivera told the Miami Herald.

The Kinsey case unfolded amid tension in many cities between African-American communities and law enforcement over deadly tactics. An era of national activism boosted by social media has magnified the names of men like Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Corey Jones, all killed in confrontations with police. 

For Horn, the frustrations expressed in street protests are familiar frustrations. He grew up in Overtown, the son of a cab-driver father and a factory-worker mother. 

In the late 1970s, Miami’s black community seethed over a lack of charges for victims like Nathaniel LeFleur, a Miami school teacher badly beaten by cops raiding the wrong home, and Randy Heath, an unarmed man shot in the head by an off-duty Hialeah cop.

In May 1980, as a first-year University of Miami law student readying for a final exam, Horn closely followed the trial of a group of Metro Dade police officers charged in the beating death of motorist Arthur McDuffie. On the day of the verdict, Horn had just finished a shift at his part-time job sweeping floors at an Overtown Baptist church. He switched on the radio.

The announcement — not guilty of all charges — stunned him.

“I let out a scream there in the apartment I was living in with my parents,” Horn recalled of a verdict that plunged Miami into race riots. “Probably came to tears as I took in what had happened.”

At that moment, Horn vowed he’d never work for then-Dade State Attorney Janet Reno.

But Horn eventually changed his mind, becoming the first African-American major-crimes prosecutor, winning cases with understated but relentless cross-examinations and meticulous trial prep. He also got a chance to try to right some wrongs in the community. 

“I was holding a lot of stuff against this office based on my perception about what this office was or was not doing,” Horn said of his law-school days. “There’s probably a lot of people who are still upset with our offices because they don’t understand what we do.”

In 1989, Reno assigned Horn to review the case of James Joseph Richardson, a black farmworker who had been convicted in 1968 by an all-white jury of fatally poisoning his seven children in Arcadia. Ultimately, Horn concluded that prosecutors hid key evidence — and Richardson was freed.

That same year, Horn tried Lozano, who shot and killed Clement Lloyd as he sped toward him on a motorcycle. The single gunshot felled Lloyd, hurling passenger Allan Blanchard to the pavement and killing him.

The case divided Miami along racial lines. In an era before 24-hour cable news and social media, the trial was broadcast live on the radio each day, its highlights dominating newspaper and TV news coverage.

“Because of the history of cases that had gone on in this community involving folks who look like me and police officers ... this was high publicity,” Horn recalled.

The conviction was fleeting. Citing the overwhelming publicity in Miami, an appeals court overturned the verdict. A second jury in Orlando acquitted Lozano.

Horn didn’t retry the officer. By that time, he had accepted a job at Shutts and Bowen, a prestigious downtown civil firm, becoming the firm’s first black partner in 1993. His civic reach grew. In 1998, he became a board member of the Housing Finance Authority of Miami-Dade County, which he still chairs today.

Horn, who is married with two grown children, agreed to return to the State Attorney’s Office in 2002, this time as Fernandez Rundle’s right-hand man, a behind-the-scenes player with a broader reach to craft policy for one of the largest prosecutor offices in the country.

“I’m very happy to have recruited him back home,” Fernandez Rundle said. “I knew his trial skills and talents are legendary, but I also knew his leadership. We live in a very complicated and diverse community and we needed that kind of intelligence, courage and sensitivity.”

As chief assistant state attorney, Horn acts a liaison to the Miami-Dade County grand jury, presenting first-degree murder cases for indictment, and tackling larger issues. Over the years, the grand jury has issued scathing reports on everything from Miami-Dade’s dysfunctional housing agency to condo board fraud to Florida’s troubled child-welfare agency.

He spearheads training, which included a February session on “implicit bias” in prosecutions. On the last day of training for new prosecutors, Horn always lectures about the Richardson exoneration, a case that was tainted by racism in and out of the courtroom.

“In large part it’s based on travesties of justice that have happened at the hands of prosecutors. I get them to understand you have the power to destroy lives. I want them to know about that case, that that man spent 21 years in prison,” Horn said.

Yet his most visible role comes on the state attorney’s police-shooting committee. Senior lawyers on the team respond to shooting scenes, analyze evidence, make decisions on whether to charge officers — and craft lengthy reports explaining why or why not. 

There have been some close calls. Horn calls the 2011 police killing of four armed robbers in the Redland, one of them a confidential informant, among the most troubling he’s encountered.

“I may believe that police officer is lying. I may believe the story from another police officer, that they’re lying. But if I can’t prove a crime was committed, even though I think one may have been committed, I can’t file it,” Horn said.

Overwhelmingly, prosecutors in Miami-Dade — and across the rest of the state — have cleared police officers in shootings. The laws give wide latitude to cops, even allowing them to shoot fleeing felons in the back, under the assumption that they could escape and do harm to others.

And Fernandez Rundle has been criticized for not pursuing cases against officers in a series of questionable incidents — not in the Redland case, not in the case of a motorist killed on Memorial Day Weekend on South Beach, not in the case of Darren Rainey, the inmate who died after being left in a hot shower at Dade Correctional Institution.

From Homestead to North Miami Beach, Horn has been dispatched to countless community forums to explain the challenges of prosecutions in a state where even regular citizens are now given wide legal leeway to use deadly force. 

At those meetings, which can be soaked in raw emotion, Horn remains mild-mannered and gentlemanly, said Rev. Carl Johnson, of the 93rd Street Baptist Church. 

“He is an effective communicator of the law. He takes the time. He’s very diligent, very patient. He wants to make sure you understand,” Johnson said.

He and others credit Horn’s efforts with helping avoid much of the unrest that engulfed Baltimore and Ferguson, Missouri, after recent controversial police shootings.

Ed Shohat, a defense lawyer who is the chair of Miami-Dade’s Community Relations Board, criticized Fernandez Rundle’s record on police shootings but acknowledged that Horn has been a steadying figure.

“Don Horn has been integral in efforts to keep the peace in Miami-Dade for many years,” Shohat said. “He’s thoroughly familiar with what drives the communities of color that are angry at what they see as a systemic failure to hold law-enforcement accountable.”

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