Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Budget Cuts at the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office

Just after 6 p.m. on a warm December Tuesday, two unseasoned cops cruised up to a dark videogame arcade on NW Third Avenue in Overtown.

After they swaggered through the front door, one of them, a brash Cuban-American with a thick mustache, noticed the telltale bulge of a .22-caliber pistol protruding from the sweater of a young African-American man leaning over a videogame.

The cop yelled for him to freeze. When the kid spun around, the officer put a bullet in his head, just above his left eye.

The year was 1982, and the victim was a 20-year-old rail-thin county employee with no criminal record named Nevell Johnson Jr. The shooter, Luis Alvarez, had garnered a half-dozen complaints in one and half years on the force.

Johnson died less than 24 hours later, but Overtown burned for three times as long. Riots ravaged the neighborhood, which was divided by Cuban/black tension and had been badly damaged in the McDuffie riots just two years before.

As the Alvarez trial stretched into early 1984, there was every reason to believe Overtown would smolder anew if the trigger-happy officer wasn't slammed with a long sentence. But on March 15, something remarkable happened. Alvarez was acquitted and almost nothing burned.

Black community leaders and the police were widely credited for calming nerves. But the case's prosecutor also considers it one of his greatest victories — even though he lost.

"Win or lose, I wanted the community to feel comfortable that we threw everything at it. I wanted no one to second-guess our effort even though they might be unhappy with the verdict," says Abe Laeser, a tall 61-year-old who speaks with a deep, nasal Ben Stein timbre and the hint of a Brooklyn accent.

Now Laeser, among the office's most senior prosecutors, is being pushed out. He and several other big guns are victims of monstrous budget cuts that lopped off one in every ten dollars the state spent last year on nailing bad guys in Florida's — and perhaps the nation's — most crime-ridden county.

The Miami-Dade's State Attorney's Office lost $6 million in state funding this year and soon will be without three of its longest-tenured prosecutors. David Waksman and David Gilbert — who combined with Laeser have more than 100 years' experience trying Miami's most complex felonies — are also being shoved out. All three say they would gladly stay longer if the budget allowed.

"Brutal," says Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle. "The... loss of talent... is sad and painful."

Florida's justice system has been thrashed as the state faces a $3.5 billion budget shortfall. Public defenders in Miami have refused felony cases, and state attorneys in other counties have been furloughed. Broward has threatened to dissolve prosecutorial units that go after wife-beaters and criminals who abuse children and the elderly.

Miami-Dade prosecutors' 11 percent cut comes despite the fact that caseloads are climbing. The office's 285 prosecutors handled more than 47,000 felony cases last year — 2,500 more than in '07.

Dropping three veteran prosecutors — who each earn more than $136,000 a year — is only part of the solution. It is also unavoidable, Rundle says. "We... have long ago trimmed away any fat that may have existed in our budget," she explains.

Laeser might be the state's greatest loss, colleagues say. Born in 1947 in a displaced persons' camp in Germany, he is the son of parents who spent time at Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen before the family reunited and immigrated to New York. They moved to Miami in 1956.

Laeser never forgot the camps when he studied law at the University of Miami and then took a job in 1973 as a lawyer in the State Attorney's Office. "When I'm booking a case, I try to figure out what's the most just result before we start," Laeser says. "I'm not looking at a case saying, 'Boy, another notch on my belt.'"

In his 35 years in the office, he has gone after thugs in some of Miami's most shocking cases, including a felon named Charlie Street who murdered two police officers in 1988. The case ignited national debate over early releases for violent criminals, because Street had been paroled less than two weeks before the killings. Laeser got a death penalty conviction. (And Street was shanked to death within five years in jail.)

This year, he has led the state's prosecution of five Orlando men who kidnapped two teenagers out for a romantic walk on South Beach. Ana Maria Angel was raped and killed. Her boyfriend, Nelson Portobanco, was left for dead with a slashed throat on the side of I-95. Laeser has already nabbed a death sentence for the ringleader.

Waksman and Gilbert have had their share of Miami's blood-soaked limelight. In 1982, Waksman got the death penalty for Harry Phillips, a 37-year-old felon who murdered his parole officer. A few years later, the prosecutor put Manny Pardo Jr., a vigilante and ex-Sweetwater Police officer, on death row for murdering nine suspected drug dealers. Waksman even coaxed the ex-cop to admit on the stand: "I enjoyed shooting them. They're parasites and they're leeches and they have no right to live."

Gilbert, meanwhile, has carved out a niche as the county's top attorney for vehicular homicides. He has prosecuted nearly every horrific fatality on Miami's roads in the past decade — including the ongoing case of Gabriel Delrisco, who allegedly killed three children last month when he drunkenly slammed into the back of the family van in South Miami-Dade.


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