By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org
Broward Public Defender Howard Finkelstein has asked the U.S. Justice Department to investigate what he called the Broward State Attorney’s “long, distressing history” of condoning police use of “threatening, improper interrogation techniques.”
The Friday letter was prompted by a story in BrowardBulldog.org earlier in the week about the state’s decision not to charge Coconut Creek Officer James Yacobellis with assault for using his Taser stun gun to scare a frightened 19-year-old theft suspect into confessing.
“I believe Officer Yacobellis violated the suspect’s civil rights and that the failure to prosecute him is an affront to our justice system. Please do something,” Finkelstein wrote.
The letter, addressed to Thomas E. Perez, assistant attorney general for Justice’s civil rights division, cites five high-profile Broward cases involving coerced or bogus murder confessions. The defendants, all later cleared, were Jerry Frank Townsend, Frank Lee Smith, Anthony Caravella, John Purvis and Tim Brown.
“Despite these chilling statistics, the same prosecutor’s office has now implicitly approved the use of torture as a means of obtaining confessions,” Finkelstein said.
The incident in Coconut Creek happened when Officer Yacobellis responded to a residence on Cocoplum Circle regarding a report of missing jewelry on Aug. 15, 2011.
At one point, Yacobellis took suspect Blake L. Robinson into a small bathroom for questioning and closed the door.
Robinson was made to stand in the tub while the officer had his Taser out with its laser beam targeting system emitting, according to the case closeout memo written by Assistant State Attorney Stefanie Newman and approved by her boss, Public Corruption Unit chief Timothy Donnelly.
Yacobellis omitted mention of the bathroom incident in his police reports about that night. But he later told prosecutors he pulled his Taser because Robinson looked like he might want to fight.
Police Sgt. Dominic Coppola, however, gave a sworn statement that when the door was opened he saw Yacobellis holding his activated Taser and Robinson “speechless, with his hands down by his side and he appeared to have a blank, scared look on his face.”
Coppola asked what was going on. “I was telling Mr. Blake (Robinson) here how my report was going to read when he resists arrest and I tase him,” Yacobellis replied, according to Coppola.
Robinson filed a complaint with details similar to those provided by Sgt. Coppola. He claimed Yacobellis pointed the stun gun at him and threatened to use it.
“He also stated that my legs would give way and if I hit my head the blood could easily be rinsed away and I would be dead or in the hospital,” Robinson said.
In her closeout memo last October declining prosecution, Newman concluded:
“It is entirely possible that Officer Yacobellis may have taken out his Taser in an attempt to scare Blake into confessing where he had pawned the missing jewelry. While this may not have been the best technique to interrogate a suspect, the intent, by all witness accounts, was certainly to help the victims to recover their missing items.”
Miami lawyer John De Leon, who stepped down last month as president of the Miami Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, called Broward prosecutors “complicit in the unlawful actions of the police officer.”
Former Miami Police Chief Ken Harms, an expert court witness in police misconduct cases, said the state’s decision “clearly appears to try and sweep it under the rug.”
The public defender’s letter to the Justice Department is the latest shot in a continuing dispute with Broward State Attorney Michael Satz about the quality of justice in the county.
In 2010, Finkelstein accused Satz publicly of routinely violating defendants’ rights and giving favorable treatment to police officers and “influential or wealthy” citizens facing prosecution.
Satz called Finkelstein’s accusation “both false and irresponsible.” The Broward Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers took Finkelstein’s side.
In June 2011, Finkelstein sent a letter to the Justice Department complaining that Satz had failed to adequately investigate and prosecute criminal conduct by police.
Finkelstein said his office reviewed dozens of closeout memos about investigations of officers that had ended without the filing of charges and observed there was a “double standard of justice in Broward County – one for law enforcement and the connected, and one for everyone else.”
Finkelstein’s letter to Justice last week seeking a civil rights investigation was copied to Michael Steinbach, the new special agent in charge of the FBI’s Miami office.
In it, Finkelstein asserted that he was writing again “on behalf of the poor, young and mentally challenged citizens of Broward County who continue to be abused by law enforcement with impunity because the state attorney office stands silent.”