1980 Miami riots
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The 1980 Miami riots were race riots that occurred in Miami, Florida in May 1980 following the acquittal of four Miami-Dade Police officers in the death of Arthur McDuffie (December 3, 1946 – December 21, 1979). McDuffie, an African-American, died from injuries sustained at the hands of four white officers trying to arrest him after a high-speed chase. The officers were tried and acquitted for manslaughter and evidence tampering, among other charges. Subsequently, one of the worst race riots in United States history broke out in the black neighborhoods of Overtown and Liberty City in Miami. In 1981 Dade County paid McDuffie's family a settlement of $1.1 million after it filed a civil lawsuit against the officials.
In the early morning hours of December 17, 1979, police officers pursued 33-year-old McDuffie, who was riding his 1973 black-and-orange Kawasaki motorcycle. McDuffie had accumulated traffic citations and was driving with a suspended license. He led police on an 8-minute high speed chase through residential streets at speeds of 80+ MPH.
The officers involved in the chase (Ira Diggs, William Hanlon, Michael Watts and Alex Marrero) later filed a report claiming McDuffie had run a red light and led police on an eight-minute chase. They said that, after McDuffie had lost control of his vehicle while making a left turn, he attempted to flee on foot but was subdued by the officers. McDuffie was accused of kicking Diggs during the scuffle. By the end of the struggle, the officers had cracked his skull "like an egg", in the words of the prosecutor at the trial.
McDuffie was transported to a nearby hospital, where he died four days later of his wounds. The coroner's report concluded that he had suffered multiple skull fractures after being struck by a blunt object.
The four officers were indicted for manslaughter, as well as tampering with or fabricating physical evidence. Acting director of the Dade County Public Safety Department, Bobby Jones, suspended the officers on December 27. He said that since 1973, the four had been cited in 47 citizen complaints and 13 internal affairs probes. In addition, two other officers, Herbert Evans, Jr. and Ubaldo Del Toro, were charged with being an accessory to the crime, as well as fabricating evidence. The six officers were fired less than a month later.
Because of the volatile atmosphere in Miami, which presiding judge Lenore Carrero Nesbitt had termed a "time bomb," the trial was shifted to Tampa. Jury selection began on March 31, 1980. The trial was heard by an all-male, all-white jury. The lead prosecutor of the case was Janet Reno, later the U.S. attorney general.
The defense said that the police were under attack. Officer Charles Veverka, who received immunity in exchange for his testimony, disputed this. Veverka said that officers hit McDuffie 10-12 times with clubs and fists until he was motionless. They attempted to cover up the attack by using a police car to run over the motorcycle and claim that McDuffie's injuries were the result of a fatal accident.
Hanlon, who had also received immunity, testified that he had choked McDuffie to the ground with his nightstick before Marrero began striking the man. He said that Marrero struck McDuffie with a flashlight. Hanlon, the only defendant to take the stand, said that he was the officer who had driven over McDuffie's motorcycle.
The three men who gave sworn statements were Veverka, Hanlon and Meier. Hanlon was charged with felonies, while Veverka was charged with a civil rights violation, but was acquitted.
On April 25, officer Mark Meier was given immunity. He testified that the high-speed chase had slowed to 25 miles per hour when McDuffie shouted, "I give up." Meier said that between three and eight officers surrounded McDuffie, pulled off his helmet and proceeded to beat him with nightsticks. He said that the officer struck him at least twice. Because the murder weapon was not identified (because of inconsistent witness testimonies), the jury determined that there was sufficient reasonable doubt to acquit the defendant.
On May 8, Del Toro was acquitted. Judge Nesbitt said that the state had failed to prove its case. Nine days later, a jury acquitted the remaining officers on all 13 counts of the indictment after less than three hours of deliberation.
The verdict resulted in protests in the Miami streets; approximately 5,000 people attended a protest at the Downtown Miami Metro Justice Building. By 6:00 p.m., the protest had turned into a riot; three people were killed and at least 23 injured, with several of those in critical condition.
Florida governor Bob Graham ordered 500 National Guard troops into the area; despite his doubling their number the next day, the riot continued. Twelve more people were killed and 165 were injured as violence spread to the Black Grove, Overtown, Liberty City and Brownsville sections of the city. In addition, fires, burglaries and looting increased, with police reluctant to enter some areas for fear of sniper fire.
By the third day, the violence declined as the city imposed an 8:00 p.m.-6:00 a.m. curfew, coupled with a temporary ban on the sale of firearms and liquor. Graham sent in an additional 2,500 National Guardsmen to the 1,000 already in the city.
Local police barricaded parts of Coconut Grove to warn motorists away from the area, as drivers had reported having rocks thrown at them. The city came to a standstill. Reports of sniper fire at freeway drivers also stopped traffic until the guards could restore order.
On May 22, former defendant Michael Watts was rushed to the hospital after attempting to commit suicide by breathing carbon monoxide. The police said that his attempt was related to a romantic breakup and not his trial.
The federal government declared Miami a disaster area, and authorized the release of funds to allow the city to rebuild. The Miami Fraternal Order of Police had threatened a walkout unless the officers were reinstated. The following day, the five officers who had been acquitted were reinstated in their jobs.
Days after the verdict, the U.S. Justice Department said it would seek indictments of the policemen for federal civil rights violations. On July 28, 1980, a federal grand jury indicted Charles Veverka, despite his having received immunity from the original charges filed by the state during the first trial.
The federal trial was held in San Antonio, Texas, after Atlanta and New Orleans asked that it be moved from their venues due to its controversial racial aspects. Journalists referred to the case as "The Trial That Nobody Wants." On December 17, Veverka was acquitted in the week-long trial after the jury deliberated for more than 16 hours. Minor incidents of violence were reported in Miami after the verdict was announced.
On November 17, 1981, Dade County commissioners agreed to a $1.1 million settlement with McDuffie's family in exchange for their dropping a $25 million civil lawsuit against the county. Of that amount, the family's legal team received $483,833, while McDuffie's two children each received $202,500, and his mother, $67,500.
- List of killings by law enforcement officers in the United States
- Mass racial violence in the United States
- The World Book Encyclopedia, 1982, volume 13, pg. 396
- Porter, Bruce & Dunn, Marvin (1984). The Miami Riot of 1980. Lexington, Massachusetts: D.C. Heath and Company. ISBN 0-669-07663-5.
- The Washington Post, various news articles, May 21 & 22 and June 22, 1980.
- AMY DRISCOLL, "THE McDUFFIE RIOTS 25 YEARS LATER", Miami Herald, 15 May 2005, at South Florida Community Development Corporation
- "Riot erupts in Liberty City", African American Registry article[dead link]
- TAMARA LUSH, "Whatever happened to redemption? Everybody says Bill Hanlon is a fine man and would make a fine lawyer. He has done free legal work, helped foster kids, volunteered at his church. But he did a terrible thing 26 years ago, and no matter how much good he does, he can't seem to live it down.", St Petersburg Times, 21 May 2006
- Video: "This is Overtown" c. 2009
- Video: "Bullets Don't Have Eyes" c. 2010
- Video: "The Eye of Overtown" c. 2009
- Harold Lee Rush, "Who Killed McDuffie?", 1980 poem
- Law.com article, requires premium subscription