MIAMI (Reuters) - Protesters marched into the offices of the state attorney for Miami-Dade County on Monday after the disclosure that the medical examiner investigating the fatal Tasing of an 18-year-old graffiti artist last summer concluded the death was “accidental.”
About 25 family and friends of Israel Hernandez-Llach, who died after he ran from police when he was found spray-painting a building in Miami Beach, as well as local supporters, shouted cries calling for the arrest of the officer who delivered the fatal Taser shot.
The protesters left shortly after also shouting “no justice, no peace.”
The protesters want the officer, Jorge Mercado, who was placed on leave after the incident, fired and arrested.
The death of Hernandez-Llach, and several other incidents, have placed Miami Beach police under intense public scrutiny, triggering protests calling for a change in the way officers use the stun guns known as Tasers.
Four days ago, embattled Miami Beach Police Chief Ray Martinez announced he would resign next month.
The death of Hernandez-Llach has also reignited a debate about whether the electrical shock the Taser delivers can sometimes trigger cardiac arrest when fired at the chest area.
“The fact that he was shot in the chest is something we are analyzing,” said Jose J. Rodriguez, a lawyer for Hernandez-Llach’s family. “We’re working with the assumption for now that the Taser caused his death.”
“In our mind, officer Jorge Mercado was in violation of the Miami Beach Tasing policy, no matter what the exiting police chief says,” said Subhash Kateel, an activist with the group Justice for Israel Hernandez “Reefa.”
Hernandez’s death was caused by “sudden cardiac arrest” from an “energy device discharge,” according to a verification of death by the Miami Dade County Medical Examiner Department. A copy of the verification of death was provided to Reuters by lawyers representing Hernandez’s family.
The state attorney’s office said in a statement it is still reviewing the circumstances of Hernandez’s “in-custody death.”
While the medical examiner’s conclusion of accidental death due to electrical discharge was “an extremely important piece of information,” the state attorney’s office would not issue a final report until reviewing more evidence from Miami Beach police and witnesses, the statement said.
“The state attorney’s office is trying to ... get people to accept that this was an accident. It was not an accident,” said Jorge Estomba, an activist and adviser for the Hernandez family.
Estomba and others at the protest said the release of selected information from the autopsy, which still has not been made public, was a calculated move to steer public perception in the closely watched case.
“The police are not a special, privileged class. They must be held accountable, and that hasn’t been the case with this office,” Estomba said.
Police discovered Colombian-born Hernandez-Llach, who went by the nickname “Reefa,” early the morning of August 6 spray-painting the side of an abandoned building in Miami Beach. When they tried to apprehend him he ran, though was eventually cornered and Tased.
Witnesses said officers laughed and high-fived each other as Hernandez-Llach lay motionless on the ground. Once in custody, he displayed signs of medical distress and was pronounced dead soon after.
His family in late August filed a lawsuit in Miami-Dade County Circuit Court against the Miami Beach Police Department and Mercado, seeking an undisclosed amount for damages and alleging the police used “unnecessary, excessive and unconstitutional force.”
Hernandez-Llach’s body remains with the Miami-Dade Medical Examiner’s Office.
Mercado had been named in several prior complaints according to police Internal Affairs reports obtained by Reuters. He was disciplined for failing a drug test in 2011 but was exonerated in several other cases, including punching a man in the face during an off-duty fight in a men’s room in 2007.
Editing by David Adams and Leslie Adler