The Miami Riot of 1980; The Killing and the Trial by Dr. Marvin Dunn
The riot could not have happened on a more beautiful day. Under a cloudless, diamond blue sky, thousands of Royal Poinciana trees were in their most extravagant bloom in years painting the city in fiery red. I had flown into Miami a few days before and had remarked to someone that the city appeared to be in flames. A few days later the city was actually burning. On that Saturday in May 1980, blacks began killing whites in the streets of Miami in broad daylight as hundreds of onlookers stood by watching; including me.
By the mid-1970s, I had become increasingly concerned that race and ethnic relations in Miami were deteriorating. There had been a series of questionable police actions involving blacks including a sexual assault on a nine-year-old black girl by a Florida State trooper in his patrol car. He was not punished and vanished without paying state ordered restitution. Unrelenting poverty was not being addressed and there was a growing sense among Miami blacks that black concerns and priorities were being displaced by Cuban American concerns and priorities.i Although these and other issues were pressing in Miami in 1980, by far the greatest concern was for police brutality in the killing of an unarmed black insurance agent named Arthur McDuffie. It was that killing that tipped the scale and pushed Miami into the abyss.
Arthur McDuffie was a thirty-three- year old insurance salesman. He had been in the Marine Corps. He had no criminal record. On the evening of December 17, 1979, McDuffie was riding north on Miami Avenue on a black and orange Kawasaki motorcycle that he had borrowed from a friend to visit a girlfriend in south Dade County. On his return north, McDuffie was speeding. A Metro Dade police sergeant named Ira Diggs was sitting in his patrol car at a closed gas station when McDuffie whizzed by, popped a wheelie and sped off. Diggs took chase and was joined almost immediately by at least six other county police cars chasing McDuffie at speeds that exceeded 100 miles per hour. At the corner Miami Avenue and Northeast 38th Street, McDuffie stopped.
McDuffie was first grabbed by Officer Charles Veverka, who arrived first and pulled McDuffie from the motorcycle. He was holding him in a bear hug as several officers swarmed in. There were no black officers present. They snatched McDuffie from Veverka’s arms and attacked him in a frenzy. McDuffie had done a very dangerous thing even for a white cyclist. He had forced police officers to chase him through the streets at over one hundred miles per hour. High speed chases may play well in the movies but in real life, cops really don’t like to do that. We will never know if McDuffie’s race was a factor in the attack. It probably was at some level but what enraged the cops was having to chase him at those speeds. As six adrenalin-fueled officers beat him viciously McDuffie, unarmed, offered no resistance.
After this initial beating the officers handcuffed McDuffie with his hands behind his back. His head was resting against the curb. At this point, a second beating of McDuffie started, probably because he was black. One of the officers, Alex Marrero, straddled McDuffie’s prone body, raised his large flashlight above his head and struck McDuffie in the back of his head splitting his skull. McDuffie began to die. Panicked, the officers began to cover up their beating of the victim. They concocted the lie that McDuffie lost control of his motorcycle and fell from the bike hitting his head on the pavement. “Officer William Hanlon admitted later that he kicked McDuffie’s motorcycle, stepped on McDuffie’s glasses and placed McDuffie’s watch on the road and shot at it with a spare revolver which he kept strapped to his ankle. He committed the last act, he said . . . for no other reason than “pure vandalism.”
The officers used a marked police vehicle to ride up on to the motorcycle to make it appear that the bike had been damaged when McDuffie lost control. In an attempt to give credence to the lie, they used their nightsticks to break the glass of the gauges on both sides of the gas tank of the motorcycle. But when the medical examiner, Doctor Ronald Wright, examined the motorcycle he could not understand why, if the victim fell off the bike, the gauges on both sides of the gas tank were broken? He also looked at McDuffie’s injuries and did not believe they were the result of a fall from a motorcycle. To him, it appeared that McDuffie had been beaten to death.
McDuffie was the father of two children. On that Christmas Eve, Officer Charles Veverka was at home with his family. He could not get McDuffie off of his mind. He couldn’t get the McDuffie children out of his mind. He called his father who was a high-ranking officer with the county police department. His father advised Veverka to contact the state attorney, Janet Reno (who became the Attorney General of the United States in the Clinton administration). After he was given immunity from prosecution, Veverka told Reno what actually happened to McDuffie. As a result, Reno ordered the arrests of six Metro-Dade officers: Alex Marrero, Ira Diggs, Michael Watts, Mark Mier and William Hanlon all of whom were charged with manslaughter and tampering with evidence. She charged Officer Herbert Evans, Jr. with tampering with evidence.
Arthur McDuffie was buried on December 29 wearing his full-dress U.S. Marine Corps uniform. The church had standing room only. I attended. A large crowd listened to loud speakers and the area was awash in media. The McDuffie children were remarkably composed. At the end of the service, McDuffie’s mother, Eula dressed in full-black, was seen live on all of the television stations leaving the church in great distress and calling upon God to “take care of it.” She had to be supported as she descended the church steps. The street outside the church was filled with television station mobile trucks. Every shriek of Eula’s pain echoed through the community.
The following day, newspapers showed her anguished face as she was being led from the church. Black Miami seethed but was not moved to riot. It was not just blacks who were upset about what had happened to McDuffie. Many whites and Hispanics expressed concerns too. The local media also demanded justice. But for blacks, McDuffie’s death for what amounted to a traffic violation, cut deep. The killing reminded blacks of their own vulnerability and raised new concerns about young black males and their special vulnerability to police abuse, a problem that continues to plague America today.
The charges against Hanlon were dropped and he was also given immunity. He would testify for the state. On January 1, 1980, Reno announced that suspended Metro Officers Charles Veverka and Mark Mier had been granted immunity and would also testify as witnesses for the state. And the following day, with Veverka and Mier now apparently willing to say that Alex Marrero struck the blows that caused McDuffie’s death, and with Hanlon saying that McDuffie was handcuffed when Marrero struck him, Reno announced that the charges against Marrero would be raised to second-degree murder. The black community had been outraged at the charges feeling manslaughter was not sufficient. Many wanted first-degree murder. But Reno said she increased the charges against Marrero not because of pressure from blacks but did so after hearing the testimony regarding the viciousness of the Marrero attack.
On January 3, 1980, the first public demonstration regarding justice for McDuffie took place in front of the county’s criminal justice building near downtown Miami. A story about the demonstration appeared in Newsweek as the case began to attract national attention.
On March 3, Judge Lenore Nesbitt agreed to move the trial to Tampa in order to give the officers a fair trial because of the excessive media coverage of events.ii The media coverage in Dade County had saturated the community, however, the NAACP in Tampa warned that a strikingly similar incident had occurred in that city in which an all-white jury exonerated a white Tampa police officer in the shooting death of a black motorcyclist after a routine traffic stop. The trial was moved to Tampa anyway.
The trial began on March 31, 1980 in Tampa and immediately the lawyers for the five defendants pooled their 34 preemptory challenges and removed all of the potential black jurors from the jury pool assuring that the case would be heard by an all-white jury. The preemptory challenges are the ones that a defendant can use without giving a reason for excluding a perspective juror. The number of preemptory challenges depends upon the crime alleged. Together the defendants in this trial had more than thirty preemptory challenges. Since there were fewer than thirty blacks in the jury pool, the defendant’s lawyers removed all of the blacks from the jury pool by using preemptory challenges. The jury was ultimately composed of six white males.
It was a closely-watched trial with every detail reported back to an anxious Miami. Television stations provided almost gavel to gavel coverage. For weeks it appeared that all of Dade County was fixated on what was going on in Tampa as the details of what took place that night emerged. Some of those details were especially gory and infuriating. For example, the Medical Examiner, Dr. Ronald Wright, testified as to the injuries McDuffie received:
Prosecutor: Would you describe to the members of the jury, as best you can, what amount of force would be necessary to cause that particular fracture, the one between the eyes?
Wright: It’s the equivalent of falling from a four-story building and landing head first.
Prosecutor: On what?
Wright: On concrete.iii
Veverka testified that as he was holding McDuffie in a bear hug several officers literally yanked McDuffie from his grasp. He described what was said during the attack on McDuffie:
Prosecutor: What did Officer Marrero say?
Veverka: The words I heard were, “Easy. One at a time. “
Prosecutor: What did Marrero do?
Veverka: I observed him with either a Kelite or a nightstick, holding it with both hands and bringing it over his head and come down twice across the top back area of Mr. McDuffie’s head.iv
It was a horrific blow. Since McDufflie’s head was against the curb it could not recoil from the blow. His skull was cracked. Veverka said, “I was standing about four or five feet east of Mr. McDuffie and Marrero. I got splattered with blood.”v Veverka described what he knew about the effort to cover up what had happened. He implicated Sergeant Herbert Evans saying that Evans was the leader of the cover up effort:
Prosecutor; what happened next?
Veverka: I heard Sergeant Evans say something. These words are not exact, but as best I can recall, it was, “The bike needs more damage.” And he looked at Hanlon and said, “Go get in the car and ride up on it.”
Prosecutor: What, if anything, did you observe or hear?
Veverka: That would be a crashing sound. When I heard the sound, I looked up. I saw a ——police unit sitting on top of the motorcycle.vi
But Veverka and Mier had participated in the cover-up leaving them open for attack by the defense attorneys who argued that the immunized officers may be more culpable than the officers they were testifying against. A major blow to the state’s case came when Officer John Gerant from the City of Miami was called to testify. He too was white but he was from the City of Miami Police Department, not Metro. He was an observer of events, not a participant. His testimony was crucial because unlike the other officers who testified for the state, Gerant was not charged with anything and had not been given immunity. He was the most credible witness for the state.
In his initial testimony, Gerant supported Veverka’s account of the way the fatal blows were dealt to McDuffie. He said the man who struck McDuffie hit him in a chopping overhead fashion, as Veverka had testified. Gerant, however, seriously damaged the state’s case and shocked the courtroom when he was asked to point to the man who struck the killing blows. Instead of pointing to Marrero, he pointed to another defendant, Michael Watts. Incredibly, key state witnesses had contradicted each other on the stand leaving the jury to determine who had actually caused McDuffie’s death.
This problem was caused by the fact that McDuffie was actually beaten twice. Gerant saw only one beating; the one in which Watts was involved which took place before Marrero was engaged. This was never made clear to the jury. Marrero attacked McDuffie after he was subdued and on the ground. Gerant never saw that. When he testified Marrero claimed McDuffie tried to grab his gun and that this was the reason he hit him. This account was greeted with high skepticism back in Miami.
At 11: 52 AM on Saturday, May 17, after almost four weeks of testimony, the case went to the jury. After two hours and forty-five minutes of deliberation, the jury returned to the courtroom. Radio and television crews were standing by to relay the news live to Miami. The court clerk read the verdicts:
We, the jury . . . this 17th [day of May 1980, find the defendant, Michael Watts, as to count three of the information, manslaughter by unnecessary killing, not guilty. We, the jury…. find the defendant, Herbert Evans, Jr., as to tampering with or fabricating physical evidence as charged in count five of the information, not guilty. We, the jury … find the defendant, Ira Diggs, as to count three of the information, tampering with or fabricating physical evidence, not guilty. We, the jury… find the defendant, Alex Marrero, as to count one of the information, second-degree murder, not guilty. vii
Sitting at home in Coconut Grove, I listened in utter shock as the verdicts were read. It took about thirteen minutes. Despite the judge’s warning to the contrary the courtroom was rent with wailing from the McDuffie family. Alex Marrero dissolved into tears. McDuffie’s mother, Eula, exclaimed as she was being escorted through a crush of reporters, “My son. My son,” She cried out, “They are guilty in God’s sight and they have to live with this.”viii
Eye Witness to Riot
The Associated Press broke the news of the McDuffie verdicts at 2: 42 PM and most Miami radio stations interrupted their programming to announce the verdicts. I poured a double Jack Daniels Black over ice and descended into sullenness. An hour or so later, I got a call from Michael Fowler, a reporter for United Press International (UPI). He told me that white people were being attacked in Liberty City. He asked whether I knew anything about this. I did not but I got into my car and drove to the Liberty Square Housing Project on Northwest Sixty-Second Street and Twelfth Avenue.
While driving, I tuned in to the popular black-oriented radio station, WEDR. Jerry Rushin, a well known voice on the station was taking calls which were pouring in. People wanted something done! The tone of the calls was very deep and unfiltered anger. Some callers were saying that we had waited on justice to work and look what happened. An avalanche of recent police abuse stories were aired yet again over the air waves. When I arrived at the housing project, I saw hundreds of people gathering in groups along 62nd Street. Some elderly people set themselves up in lawn chairs to watch the growing chaos.
The police were totally unprepared and overwhelmed almost immediately. In an effort to contain the disturbance, police units were placed on either end of 62nd Street between 7th and 27th Avenues.ix A rumor spread among blacks that a black child had been shot by a white man speeding along 62nd Street. This turned out to be untrue, but the rumor brought even more people out of the housing project and close by apartments and into the streets. The first attack on whites occurred because the metro police units that were guarding the western entrance to Liberty City at 62nd Street, left their post at 27th Avenue to look for a reported white drunk who had allegedly been attacked by blacks. There was no such person, but in their futile search for the victim, the police left the western approach into Liberty City wide open. Disaster followed.
“The first car to enter the riot area was a cream-colored 1969 Dodge Dart with eighteen-year- old Michael Kulp at the wheel. His brother, Jeffrey age 22, was in the front seat and Debra Getman, a friend age 23, was asleep in the rear seat. The brothers were from Spring City, Pennsylvania and had recently moved to Miami to work in a department store called Burdines. They had spent the day at the beach. The car had no radio and the trio had heard nothing about McDuffie verdicts.”x It did not matter. They were white. Once they crossed 27th Avenue they were in the maelstrom. Large chunks of concrete rained down on the car at 13th Avenue where the largest mass of people were gathering. One large chunk struck Michael in the head. He lost control of the car and it swerved across the median strip and into a building on the opposite side of the street where it struck 75- year- old Albert Perry. It only fractured his ankle. Far more damage was done to a little girl who was standing close by.
She was Shanreka Perry who was ten years old. Actually, she should not have been standing there. She lived in the housing project. Her mother had sent her on an errand but she made her way into the swelling disturbance. The Kulp car struck her and drove her up against the stucco wall of one of the buildings of the housing project crushing her pelvis, severing her right leg and smearing the wall with a large swarth of blood. The crowd erupted in anger at the sight. Some women grabbed sheets from a clothesline and wrapped up the leg of the injured girl and hailed a taxi driven by a black man who rushed her and her severed leg to Jackson Memorial Hospital.”xi
The girl survived but the leg could not be saved. Deborah Getman’s life was probably saved by some black unsung heroes. She managed to escape from the car and run through the housing project to the next street where she was helped by some residents who put her in a cab that took her to safety with just a few cuts to her face. “The Kulp brothers were beaten by a variety of people for about fifteen to twenty minutes. They were punched, karate-kicked and struck with rocks, bricks, bottles and pieces of concrete, one of which was later recovered by MPD homicide detectives and found to weigh 23 pounds.”xii Then a strange thing happened that was printed in newspapers across the country: An aged derelict, who people in the community knew only as “Ernest”, approached Jeffry Kulp lying still in the street, knelled down and inserted a red rose into his bleeding mouth.
I arrived on the scene during the last minutes of the attack on the Kulps. I saw one of the victims lying in the median strip beneath a palm tree. I thought it was a bundle of disheveled clothing, until it moved. There were hundreds of people standing on the south side of 62nd Street watching the attack. I parked at a convenience store near Twelfth Parkway. By the time I arrived, Shanreka had been taken to the hospital. I saw a group of about twenty young black men surrounding one of the victims. Looking from across the street, I saw the attack on the prone body of Jeffrey Kulp. A man was using a metal Miami Herald newspaper dispenser to strike Kulp’s head. The victim was not moving. There was no ranting of encouragement from the onlookers most of whom watched in silence as I did for a moment. “We go git the Uncle Tom niggers next,” I heard one of the attackers exclaim. I realized they were talking about me and the other so-called black leaders of the historical moment who they felt had failed the black community.
I got back into my car and drove to a police sub-station about a mile away on 46th Street where police, mainly Florida state troopers, were gathering. I approached Clarence Dixon, a major in the City of Miami Police Department who would later become the city’s first black police chief. I told him what I had seen. I told him that there were two white men lying in the street. The Miami police tried three times to reach the scene of the Kulp attack but were driven back by angry crowds. It was late that night before using an armored vehicle, the police removed the Kulps from the scene barely clinging to life. Michael Kulp lived but was left severely limited in his physical abilities. His brother Jeffrey died on June 12 in Jackson Memorial Hospital.
About an hour after the Kulp beatings another car driven by whites somehow stumbled into the riot area and was attacked at almost the same location where the Kulps had been attacked. Benny Higdon, 21, his brother-in-law, Robert Owens, 14, and Robert’s friend Charles Barreca, 15, were stoned and beaten. Of the three, only Barreca made it alive to the hospital, where he died shortly afterward. Late that day, a spontaneous gathering of community leaders, black and white, met at the headquarters of the office of the state attorney and at the jail complex near downtown.
A call had gone out on black radio stations for concerned citizens of all races to gather at the complex to express outrage at the verdicts. I went to this impromptu gathering and saw as many whites as there were blacks in the group of protesters. As the crowd milled around the justice complex, black leaders scrambled to rig a public address system so that they could be heard. They never really succeeded and the crowd broke off into small bands of young people encircling the county jail itself. I saw police officers locked inside their own headquarters with weapons at the ready.
Some young people began to attack the cars of employees who were arriving at the jail and at nearby Jackson Memorial Hospital to work. Some of the whites had children in their cars but this did not matter to rioters. Any car being driven by a white person was a target. Some of the blacks tried to protect whites who were caught in the disturbance by getting into their cars and driving them out of danger. They had the whites lie down on the floor and remain out of sight until out of the rampage. Some of the young people began setting police cars aflame and turning them over. A loud yell erupted from the crowd each time a car was engulfed.
The next day, Sunday, a meeting was called at the Community Relations Board in order to have the concerns of the black community heard by public officials especially Janet Reno. Several politicians and high ranking police officers were present. Several black activists including myself, attended the meeting. Some black members of the group severely scolded Reno for how the case was handled with some critics calling her a racist. Of course, Janet Reno was not a racist and in fact, was by all definitions, a liberal who had a track record of supporting the black community. As the meeting droned on, nothing was accomplished. It was time for those of us who were trying to maintain calm to take to the streets. The late Georgia Jones Ayers, a black activist from Liberty City and one who knew the streets better than most of those who were present, including the police, chastised the group for wasting time. In a booming voice, she pleaded, “The rioters are waking up and we are here still talking. Hit the streets!”
I joined a group of about fifteen black activists who agreed to work with the police to try to keep the Liberty City community calm that night. We wore black arm bands in order for the police to recognize us as non-rioters. But the rage would not be restrained. The young blacks who had taken over the streets were in no mood to listen to anyone. That Sunday night, I saw a man running from a liquor store that was being looted. He was carrying a case of Chivas Regal scotch. I asked him what stealing liquor had to do with justice for McDuffie. He said, “Nothing. It’s free,” and ran off into the dark night. Later on, I came upon a young black boy sitting on the curb in front of a burning gas station. He appeared to be about 14 or 15 years old. “Don’t you know you could get killed out here?” I asked him. “It don’t matter. The Cubans got our jobs – now the Haitians is gittin em.”
More whites died that Sunday night. Much of this violence took place close to another sprawling public housing project, the James E. Scott Homes on Northwest 22nd Avenue a few blocks north of the Liberty Square project. Bertha Rogers, age 55 was killed around 9:30 PM. Her car met a barrage of bricks and other objects as she crossed 69th Street. Someone reached into her car and grabbed her purse. Then her car was doused with gasoline and set ablaze. A Good Samaritan got the woman out of the burning car and drove her to Jackson Memorial Hospital which was now facing a steady increase in riot victims. It took five days for Bertha to succumb to her injuries. She died on May 22nd.
Within the same hour, three blocks north of where Bertha was attacked the car driven by Emilio Munoz, 63, a Cuban-born butcher, met a hail storm of rocks. The car was overturned. Munoz was trapped in the wreckage. “As Munoz lay pinned in the wreckage the crowd beat and jabbed him with sticks. Then someone threw gasoline over the car and set it on fire. However, according to the medical examiner, Munoz was already dead. Blood from the beating had trickled into his lungs choking him to death. He would not be extricated from the charred car until the next day, at about the same time a fishing boat from Miami was waiting at the harbor at Mariel, Cuba, to bring his wife and son over to the United States.”xiii
The next victim was actually an African who was taken for white. Chabillall Janarnauth, age 22, was a light-skinned immigrant from Guyana. His friends called him “Shab”. His body was discovered on 27th Avenue near 50th Street around 11 PM. “He was so mutilated that a friend could identify him only by his brown boots and his distinctive hair and eyebrows. The police theorized that he had been beaten and then run over several times with his own car, which was never found.”
Mildred Penton, age 65, was the last white victim to die although her death occurred several weeks following the event. She and her husband and daughter had been at the Flagler Dog Track and were returning home when their car was attacked with rocks on 27th Avenue near 48th Street. Penton was struck in the head by a brick and lost consciousness. She lay in a coma for four days; then she awoke briefly, but she relapsed into the coma and died five weeks later.xiv
Late that Sunday, three blacks were attacked by whites who were driving through black areas. One of the black victims was a child. Andre Dawson was fourteen. His sister had gone to a store on Third Avenue and 83rd Street, and he ran after her although his mother had admonished him to stay close enough for her to call them in before the curfew. “Suddenly what witnesses later said was a blue pickup truck or van raced down 83rd Street and three shots rang out. Two of the bullets struck Dawson in the head; he was dead on arrival at Jackson Memorial Hospital.” xv
At about the same time, Eugene Brown, age 44, a cement finisher and father of three, was driving two of his children and his wife, Rosie, to a U-Totem store on 83rd Street at North Miami Avenue to get some orange juice. Shots were fired from what eyewitnesses think might also have been a blue truck. Rosie ducked down behind her car. When she raised her head, she saw her husband had been hit. She drove him to Jackson Memorial Hospital where he was dead on arrival. The person or persons who were responsible for the attacks were never apprehended.xvi
Local whites were shocked, confused and most of all, frightened. The country had not seen race riots since the 1960s. Why, they wondered, was this happening in Miami? Remarks in the media about the competition for jobs between African Americans and newly-arriving immigrants from Cuba and Haiti led some pundits to conclude that this was a root cause of the riot. But nothing could have been farther from the truth. It was not the arrival of Cuban or Haitian immigrants that caused this riot. It was not competition for jobs. It was not outrage about the beating itself; after all, blacks did not riot as the startling details of how McDuffie had been beaten became public.
The riot was caused by outrage in the black community that five white county police officers had beaten a black man to death for what should have been a speeding ticket and were declared not guilty by an all-white jury. It was caused by a deep sense among African Americans of race-inspired injustice, not just in the McDuffie killing, but in other instances of abuse by white police officers which had taken place preceding the McDuffie incident. It was caused by the same police-community dynamics that today keeps the nation on edge. (In 1989, Alex Marrero was arrested by federal agents for attempting to smuggle cocaine into Miami.)
In the aftermath of the riot, a series of meetings between black leaders, local government and business leaders were held. The demands from the blacks were specific: Get rid of racist cops and provide better employment opportunities for blacks.xvii But the underlying problems that had sparked the riot had not been addressed in a meaningful way. In particular, the problem of police-community relations remained largely unresolved.xviii On June 9, President Carter came to Liberty City. He had not wanted to come, but local black Democrats prevailed on him to make a showing. It was a mistake. The meeting was held in the community center for the James E. Scott Homes, the public housing projects near which some victims were attacked. About twenty black and white leaders were invited to meet with Carter. I was not among them, but I got various estimates of the meeting from some of the people who did attend.
The meeting disappointed everyone. The local leaders thought Carter was coming to tell them how much money the federal government was going to give for riot recovery. Carter, on the other hand, discussed disappointment that the local leaders did not have a recovery plan to present to him. He would later dispatch Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti to Miami to discuss federal support, but very little of what the president said was really heard.xix M. Athalie Range, the first black to serve on the Miami City Commission and the most important black leader at the time, left the meeting in the presidential limousine with the president.
There was a large crowd gathered outside the meeting place. Some of the people who were waiting outside were there specifically to make trouble. As the president and Range were driven away from the community meeting, a few rocks and bottles were tossed at the presidential limousine from the back of the crowd. Some of them actually struck the car. It was an embarrassing moment for all concerned. In an interview years later, Range told me that the president patted her hand and told her there was no need to worry.
In the end, eighteen people died in the riot, most of whom were black, and over 100 million dollars in damages were done to properties in the city through arson and looting. A much larger proportion of the rioters in Miami had experienced little or no previous contact with the police as compared to the urban rioters of the 1960s. This led some blacks to argue that the riot was a righteous rebellion, and not a property riot, since it pulled in ordinary citizens who had no criminal record.xx I did not accept that description.
A black man named T. Willard Fair was the leader of the Miami Urban League at the time. He was among those who reasoned that the riot was justified. He chose not to go to the meeting with Janet Reno but went golfing instead. He wrote later in a diary of his activities during the riot, “Anyone who had any understanding of the ramifications of dehumanization and social isolation could understand the riots and that the Black community’s behavior is socially justifiable and understandable.”xxi I did not agree with that assessment of the riot. To me, it was murder in the streets with as much justification as the lynchers had in Newberry, Rosewood or Ocoee.
Few of those who were arrested were seriously prosecuted for their actions because the legal system was overwhelmed by the sheer number of persons hauled in during the disturbance. But a few were charged, and unlike white lynchers, some black rioters were sent to prison for what they did. In October, 1980, two black male defendants, James McCullough, age 18, and Frankie Lee James, age 20, were tried by a racially-mixed jury on second-degree murder charges in the death of Jeffrey Kulp and the attempted murder of Michael Kulp. On October 28th, McCullough was found guilty of manslaughter, and on December 11th he was sentenced to thirty years in prison. Because of his age the sentence was later overturned and he was then sentenced to four years in prison and two years of “community control.” Frankie Lee James was acquitted on all charges.
In February, 1981, four young black men, Leonard Capers, his brother Lawrence, Samuel Lightsey and Patrick Moore were charged with first-degree murder and tried by another racially-mixed jury for the murders of Benny Higdon, Robert Owens and Charles Barreca. Moore admitted on tape that he had stood over Higdon with a .25 caliber automatic pistol and fired point-blank three or four times. The Capers brothers along with Lightsey accused Nathaniel Lane and Lonnie Bradley of being the main attackers in the fatal beatings. On the evening of February 6, 1981, after more than five days of deliberation, the longest in Dade County history, a jury that included three blacks found Lightsey guilty of second-degree murder. He was sentenced to life in prison. The Capers brothers were found guilty of three counts of third-degree murder and received three consecutive sentences of fifteen years in prison. Moore was acquitted.xxii
In the spring of 1981, Reno went after Nathaniel Lane, the man who allegedly killed Jeffrey Kulp. Witnesses saw Lane leading the attack on the Kulp brothers and he emerged as the main target for the prosecution in the Kulp murder. His trials, three of them, reflected the racial divide in Miami at the time. The Lane trials also showed how doggedly determined Janet Reno was to nail the attackers. The trials of the alleged attackers also showed that at least one black witness was courageous enough to break the black curtain of silence that enveloped the community in the aftermath of the riot. Lane, 18, was described by other defendants as the chief culprit in the beating deaths of Higdon, Owens and Barreca. He was tried in April, 1981, on charges of first-degree murder. The key witness against Lane was Doris Jones, a black woman who lived in an apartment overlooking the parking lot in which the murders occurred. She knew Lane, and she testified that she recognized him as a key figure among the mob that beat the three white motorists.
The trial resulted in a hung jury. The panel of nine whites and three blacks split racially, with the whites voting for conviction, the blacks for acquittal. The state decided to keep Lane in jail and bring him to trial again. His second trial in July, 1981 also ended with a hung jury, split along racial lines. Reno made the unusual decision to try him a third time in December. This trial, too, was heard by a biracial jury, but although it did not split along racial lines, it again was unable to reach a verdict. The state finally gave up, and Lane was released.
I was furious each time Nathaniel Lane escaped justice. He was a man on the order of Bryant Hudson who shot Sam Carter in Rosewood. Lane was a basic hoodlum who represented the extreme of society. Had he been white, he could have been a member of the KKK or a Neo-Nazi. I also feared for Doris Jones. On July 16, 1982, Lane was back in jail, this time charged with shooting an unarmed black youth in the neck in an attempted robbery at a rock concert in Overtown. The victim was paralyzed as a result. Lane was identified by several witnesses, all of them black. He was convicted of attempted first-degree murder and armed robbery and sentenced on March 29, 1983 to two life sentences, the terms to run consecutively.
There were many fires set during the four days of rioting. At night, the northwestern portion of the city appeared to be consumed in flames, especially in the area along 27th Avenue where a tire dealership had been set ablaze. It was that image that made it around the world, showing Miami on its worst day ever. Despite the extensive arson in several areas of the community, only three people were convicted of arson. On March 7, 1982, after three and a half hours of deliberation, a Dade County biracial jury found Ira Lee Pickett, a black man, guilty of first-degree arson and burglary with assault. Pickett had been part of a mob attack that left Emilio Munoz burned beyond recognition.
The primary motive in the Miami riot in 1980 was different from the motives in the recent disturbances across the country involving allegations of police killings of black males. In particular, it was different from the motives in the disturbance in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014 in the aftermath of a questionable police shooting of a young black man named Michael Brown. The main aim of those disturbances, which do not begin to approach the level of violence and destruction to qualify as a race riot, was to confront the police over misconduct and racism within their ranks. Some property damage occurred as a byproduct of the confrontations. But in Miami, the primary aim of the riot was to actually kill whites.xxiii
The city has never fully recovered from the effects of the riot. Many businesses, including some owned by blacks, used the money that was made available to riot-impacted businesses in order to move out of the community. The most impressive positive result of the riot was the change in the law that made it illegal to use race as a factor in eliminating potential jurors, as had been done in the selection of the McDuffie jury. The judge who wrote the opinion for Florida’s Third District Court of Appeal was a black man, Wilkie D. Ferguson. He went on to become a federal judge.
Miami experienced two other race riots in the 1980s. Both were centered in the Overtown section and both involved questionable police shootings of young black men by white police officers. No one was killed during the 1982 event; however, during the 1989 disturbance, one black man was killed by gunfire. No whites were killed during either incident. Both officers involved in those incidents were Hispanic. One of them, Alex Alvarez, a City of Miami officer, was found not guilty in 1982 in the death of Nevel Johnson, a young black man who Alvarez shot to death in a video arcade in Overtown. The other officer, William Lozano, also a City of Miami officer, was convicted of manslaughter in the shooting of a black motorcyclist, Clement Lloyd.