Sunday, December 16, 2007

State Attorney Works to Clear a Backlog of Deadly Force Cases


State Attorney Lawson Lamar works to clear a backlog of deadly force cases for Orlando-area cops
Extra prosecutors were assigned to help get cases out of limbo.

Henry Pierson Curtis

Sentinel Staff Writer

(published) December 13, 2007

Twenty-eight Orlando-area cops who had been waiting up to two years for a prosecutor to evaluate their use of deadly force have been cleared during the past two months by State Attorney Lawson Lamar.

His office closed 15 of those cases during three days in mid-November, a week before the Orlando Sentinel reported that Lamar's office took months and sometimes years longer than other Central Florida state attorneys to review such cases.

At the time, Lamar's staff said no backlog existed. This week, it was disclosed that extra prosecutors had been assigned to resolve the cases.

"No case was forgotten, but there were a number of factors why the reviews were not completed in a timely manner, several of [them] . . . unacceptable," Chief of Investigations Randy Means wrote this week in an e-mail to the newspaper. "We have accomplished our goal of finishing the reviews and now have a better tracking method that should keep reviews up to date."

The Sentinel began looking into the backlog in September. Law-enforcement officials and union leaders subsequently told the newspaper that officers involved in shootings had to work under a cloud of doubt as they waited for Lamar's staff to decide whether they acted legally.

Means wrote that Lamar spoke with prosecutors "a few months ago" and told them to reduce the backlog of deadly force investigations. He said the process already was under way when the newspaper asked about the cases. He would not say when or how many prosecutors were assigned to clear up the problem.

Evidence of the recent urgency was found on a note pasted to one of the shooting files newly cleared.

"Please assign to Robert Eagan ASAP!" a senior staff prosecutor wrote Oct. 22 on one file. Eagan, a former state attorney who still works in the office, helped resolve the more than two dozen open cases.

The veteran prosecutor took less than three days to review the inches-thick file and determine that five Orlando police officers had been justified when they killed an armed robber Aug. 31.

The man killed, 23-year-old Willie Lee Cliatt, had opened fire on the officers when cornered on Mercy Drive shortly after he robbed a Pine Hills business, crashed his getaway car in a high-speed chase and threatened to kill an Orlando woman in a failed carjacking, records show.

It was one of several cases Lamar closed this fall much faster than usual.

The promise of timely reviews pleased Orlando police officers and Orange County deputy sheriffs.

"We understand that, obviously, homicide cases and other infamous-type crimes could take precedent to review an officer's actions, but we feel it's just as important in most circumstances to get those officers' actions reviewed and let the public know they did their job or, in those rare cases, if they didn't do their jobs," said Sam Hoffman, labor-committee chairman of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 25 in Orlando.

"We are pleased that they have cleared up the backlog," Hoffman said. "And we'd like to see the cases more up to date."

The handling of the Mercy Drive case, resolved in less than eight weeks, contrasted with the handling of the Dec. 1, 2005, death of Jeffrey Earnhardt near Bithlo.

The victim, cousin of NASCAR great Dale Earnhardt Jr., died after being stunned twice with a Taser by a deputy to keep him from running into traffic on East Colonial Drive. An autopsy determined that Jeffrey Earnhardt, 47, was dangerously high on methamphetamine, an illegal drug he had been arrested for trying to manufacture, records show.

Other long-unresolved cases had included a nonfatal shooting in August 2005 when truck thieves tried to run down several deputies, and fatal shootings in April and May 2006 when carjackers tried to kill deputies, records show.

Central Florida Police Benevolent Association President John Park, who represents about 1,300 Orange County deputies, said timely rulings help law-enforcement officers deal with the personal stress of having to use deadly force. Local deputies and police officers typically return to work within two weeks, even while waiting for prosecutors to decide whether a shooting was justified.

"With multiple layers of scrutiny on split-second decision making by law-enforcement officers, it's reassuring to hear the State Attorney's Office is going to give back a timely verdict on issues that weigh on the hearts and minds of deputies involved in these critical incidents," Park said. "We thank everyone involved in the process."

Henry Pierson Curtis can be reached at or 407-420-5257.

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