Court Case To Be A Trial For Jurors

DATE: October 2, 2000
EDITION: Final

FRANCES ROBLES, [email protected]
PUBLICATION: Miami Herald, The

Dozens of jurors were lined up outside Courtroom 4-1 in the Richard E. Gerstein Justice Building last week, waiting to find out if they would be picked to hear what may be one of Miami-Dade County's longest and biggest criminal trials.

Fifty jurors were there the week before. Another batch will show up today. Those picked will listen to 1,500 recorded conversations among six defendants in a racketeering case expected to last four months.

It'll be their job to figure out whether a Miami-Dade police officer plotted with another patrolman and several Carol City men to steal drugs and money from dope dealers. If convicted, the defendants face life in prison.

When the trial began before Circuit Judge Leonard Glick last summer, six defense attorneys and two prosecutors went through 300 prospective jurors and could not seat a panel. Not enough people in the jury pool could serve on a case that long. Even the court-appointed defense attorneys went to Glick to argue their $50-an-hour fee was not enough for a trial that stretched for so many weeks.

"They built the Titanic," said defense attorney Russell Spatz, referring to prosecutors. "Now the question is: Will it float?"

Miami-Dade Police began the mammoth investigation in 1996, when a drug dealer approached internal affairs detectives with a wild allegation: He was pulled over by a uniformed officer and robbed.

A year later, Officer Trevin Johnson, a former Eagle Scout who patrolled the Intracoastal district, was arrested. The arrest of his alleged lookout, 16-year police veteran Marvin Baker, followed.

Public corruption prosecutors said co-defendant Ranier Gillis, 33, planned cocaine sales, but rather than go through with them, he alerted his police pals. Baker and Johnson allegedly pulled the dealers over, took their drugs and cash and sent them on their way. Johnson was snared by undercover detectives who posed as drug dealers carrying duffle bags loaded with 41/2 pounds of cocaine and $16,000 in cash. Baker was allegedly nearby serving as a lookout.

"This was a specific scheme where they were using police officers to steal dope," said Assistant State Attorney Howard Rosen, who is prosecuting the case with Jani Singer. "This is exactly the kind of case the racketeering statute was designed for."

Baker, who was assigned to the Carol City district, was charged with racketeering conspiracy, armed cocaine trafficking and armed robbery with a firearm. He is already serving a 15-year sentence for a federal court conviction. His defense attorney, Roderick Vereen, said he shunned a prosecution offer to plead guilty in this case and serve the 15 years concurrently.

"He is innocent. He was convicted on perjured testimony" in the federal case, Vereen said. Johnson agreed to a 20-year prison sentence and may testify. Eight other defendants have also accepted plea bargains. Also charged are Wallace Johnson, Ernest McKay and Daniel Hilbert Jr.

Attorneys representing the remaining defendants say their clients got caught in prosecutors' zeal to nab dirty cops.

To justify thousands of investigative hours, defense attorneys say, prosecutors built a massive case that forces them to prove up to a dozen crimes that lay the foundation for racketeering charges.

"It's way overcharge," said defense lawyer Mark LeVine, who represents Hilbert. "It actually is small-time stuff."

"They built a monstrosity," said Spatz, who represents Gillis, the alleged ringleader. "It is one million percent overkill." Not true, said Rosen.

"Of course that's how they are going to spin it to the jury," Rosen said.

"Remember, it's people like these defendants that enable police officers to become corrupt, that encourage them to become corrupt."

Humberto Dominguez, lawyer for Gillis' brother, Kanisky Evans, said some of the defendants are career criminals who would be hit with long sentences even without the more serious, time-consuming racketeering charges that were "meant for the Mafia."

"I think they're doing it to show they can," Dominguez said.

"Why do we go to the moon? To see if we can go to the moon."