Monday, October 6, 2008

Broward homicide investigator at center of DNA controversy

Broward homicide investigator at center of DNA controversy


Since December when it was announced that DNA evidence had posthumously cleared a Broward County man who had died of cancer on Death Row, the Broward Sheriff's Office's homicide unit has come under intense scrutiny.

The spotlight has focused on Richard Scheff, a veteran homicide investigator and former head of the unit who is accused of lying on the witness stand about the case he built against Frank Lee Smith.

Meanwhile, several defense attorneys have questioned whether, in light of the Smith case, Scheff and the homicide unit he led might have built cases based on coerced confessions and shaky eyewitness testimony.

Scheff, who began as a patrol officer and rose to become the leader of BSO's internal affairs unit, was shifted to an administrative job recently while a special prosecutor investigates the allegation of perjury.

Sheriff's officials contend that, apart from the Smith case, no one has presented them with any formal accusations against Scheff or the homicide squad.

``If someone has a concern or allegations about the way we do business, they should bring it to our attention. The sheriff wants to know about that,'' said Cheryl Stopnick, BSO spokeswoman.
Scheff declined to be interviewed.

In the wake of the Frank Lee Smith controversy, Sheriff Ken Jenne has called for DNA tests to be performed on seven inmates, six of them on Death Row. Of the seven inmates, Scheff was the detective assigned to two of the cases: Lancelot Armstrong and Michael Rivera, and the supervisor on two others: Dwayne Parker and Lewis Lawrence. Scheff headed the unit when one of the inmates, Robert Consalvo, was charged with murder.

The six men are the only current Death Row inmates that BSO investigated.


The agency's critics say the BSO effort rings hollow.

``Police can't police police,'' said Terry Backus, a Death Row attorney representing Lancelot Armstrong, whose case is now under BSO review.

The newest challenge to a BSO murder conviction comes in the case of Michael Rivera, sentenced to death in 1987 for the murder of Staci Jazvac. His attorneys claim the conviction rested on statements Scheff testified to that were taken out of context and implied Rivera's guilt in the murder, and the testimony of a jailhouse snitch.

``There was nothing to tie [Rivera] to it except his supposed statement,'' said Marty McClain, a Death Row attorney representing Rivera. ``It all depended on Scheff and his partner's testimony, on whether you believe them or not. The only physical evidence was a hair follicle that a BSO forensics examiner concluded was consistent with Staci's known hair.''

McClain says the Rivera case shows a pattern typical of several controversial BSO murder convictions: It rests largely on a confession obtained by Scheff's homicide squad

The Capital Collateral Regional Counsel, a group of public defenders located in Tampa, Tallahassee and Fort Lauderdale representing Death Row inmates, filed two motions in Broward County Circuit Court on Wednesday asking the state to reveal all evidence it has on Rivera.

The group, represented by McClain, also seeks any information discovered by the state that would impeach Scheff's testimony in Rivera's trial and DNA testing on the hair follicle.


DNA testing would prove conclusively if the hair follicle found in a van that Rivera was known to use really came from Jazvac, McClain said. At the center of the legal skirmish is Scheff, a man who earned a reputation for cracking the tough cases during his two-decade rise in the BSO.
Several high-profile cases involving Scheff are now being questioned:

Frank Lee Smith was sent to die in prison for the murder of 8-year-old Shandra Whitehead after an eyewitness in the 1985 murder case testified at two appeal hearings that Scheff had pressured her to identify Smith while never bothering to show her a photo of Eddie Lee Mosley, accused of rape and murder, who roamed the same northwest Fort Lauderdale neighborhood where the young girl was raped and killed

That testimony is now being investigated by a special prosecutor appointed by the governor, at the request of Broward State Attorney Michael Satz.

Smith was exonerated last year after he died of cancer in prison.

Peter Dallas, Stephen Rosati and Peter Roussonicolos were indicted in September 1990 and charged with the murder of Joseph Viscido Jr. of Deerfield Beach. BSO's homicide unit took over the 4-year-old murder case from Deerfield Beach in 1990 and within four months they thought they had their killers. Dallas confessed to the killing and implicated Rosati and Roussonicolos. Scheff and lead detective Steven Wiley interviewed an eyewitness who later said she was harassed by the detectives into identifying Dallas from a photo lineup.

Scheff and Wiley presented the case to the state attorney's office, which led to the indictment of Dallas, Roussonicolos and Rosati. The trio spent almost two years in jail.

But the case dissolved after a former Florida Department of Law Enforcement special agent, Michael Breece, came forward with new evidence implicating two other men in the Viscido murder.

``I can see protecting your case and the credibility of your case is very important, but there comes a time when you have to say, `Hey, something's wrong here and we need to look at it,' '' Breece said. ``But BSO didn't want to do that.'' The Broward County state attorney's office asked for a special prosecutor to investigate the new evidence. Dallas, Rosati and Roussonicolos were freed.

Timothy Brown and Keith King were convicted for the 1990 murder of Deputy Patrick Behan in Pembroke Park. Brown was 14 at the time of the murder; King was 17. Attorneys for Brown maintain their client's confession was coerced. Brown was convicted Oct. 21, 1993, and sentenced to life in prison without the chance of parole. King was sentenced to 15 years and was released in December 1999.

Federal public defenders for Brown have filed a petition in Miami seeking a new trial, alleging Brown's confession was coerced, that he waived his Miranda rights against self-incrimination without understanding them, and that Brown's mother was not allowed to speak with her son during his interrogation. Scheff testified at a subsequent court hearing that Brown's mother, Othalean Brown, did not want to see her son during his interrogation.

Othalean Brown says she asked to see her son, but was told by Scheff that ``he had been moved elsewhere.'' '

Michael Rivera was sentenced to death in May 1987 for the murder of 11-year-old Staci Jazvac. The Rivera case is another where attorneys contend a conviction was obtained with an implied confession and the testimony of a jailhouse snitch.

While awaiting trial for the murder of Jazvac, Rivera was convicted and sentenced to life for the kidnapping and attempted murder of an 11-year-old Coral Springs girl.

The 11-year-old gave a poised demonstration of the attack for the jury, pausing only when asked to identify Rivera as her assailant -- she could not. Rivera is on Death Row pending an appeal.
Richard Scheff joined the Broward Sheriff's Office in 1980 at the age of 29. He was the oldest cadet in his class at the South Florida Criminal Justice Department. As a young man, Scheff owned a company that installed alarms in homes and businesses. But he said another career kept calling him.

``When you're a kid, you want to be a police officer, a jet pilot or an Indian chief,'' Scheff told The Herald in a 1998 interview.

``I never quite got over the desire to be a police officer.'' His personnel file is brimming with commendations, including Deputy of the Month for his ``outstanding performance'' in the Frank Lee Smith case and a letter congratulating Scheff and the homicide unit on their exceptional rate of cleared cases.

Scheff was a detective with the homicide unit from 1983 to 1985. He then was promoted to sergeant and supervised the unit from September 1986 to January 1990. Then, promoted again, he headed the unit until 1993. Another promotion put Scheff in charge of the criminal investigation unit, which oversees all major crimes, robbery, homicide, sexual assaults, until 1997.

Sheriff's officials say they don't know enough about Scheff's casework to determine his exact role in each investigation, how ``hands on,'' Scheff was.

``The direct supervisor for the detectives in the homicide unit is the sergeant and he is responsible for the day-to-day operations and the overseeing of the detectives and their cases,'' said Jim Leljedal, BSO spokesman, describing the job Scheff held in general terms.


``The sergeant is aware of the cases his unit is handling and what each of his detectives is doing in each homicide investigation.''

The homicide unit now comprises eight to nine detectives led by two sergeants. Ten to 15 years ago, when Scheff directly oversaw the unit, the homicide squad typically had six to eight detectives with only one sergeant, Leljedal said. Each detective handles two to three cases at any one time.

Breece concurs that juggling several homicide investigations simultaneously makes it difficult for detectives to devote a great deal of time to any one case, sometimes forcing them to act quickly.
``There is no better feeling for a law enforcement officer than to know he did things right and got a good conviction,'' Breece said.
``The Peter Dallas case was one of the highlights of my career and one of the lowest, because no one wanted to admit they had made a mistake and ended up making it personal by attacking me and my credibility.''

Herald staff writer Daniel de Vise contributed to this report.


chemaine camacho said...

I remember this story. I met Mr. Rivera a short time before this at Big Daddy’s Lounge on St rd 7 he was very strange and made me very uncomfortable we all went out to breakfast at Denny’s where I worked and then back to a friend’s house and someone invited him not sure who. I remember he was very strange around the children in the house and to me it looked like he was more interested in little boys I soon left after that and went home at the time I lived across from BA High School not a safe neighborhood at all but all I could afford at the time.. a few week later I was coming out of my apt to throw the garage away at about the time of dismissal and I see Mr. Rivera backing into a spot to park I didn’t want him to see me or know where I lived since he creped me out so much so I ducked into my apt. however if I’m not mistaken he was driving a car that day not a truck. I did report this to some of the BSO that frequently came into Denny’s and two detectives came by my apt to talk to me the also drove me by his house in a car with tinted windows and asked me to point out the car I did and I also had to pick h. I also remember a guy that use to call the pay phone outside the door of big daddy’s that wanted to talk and you could tell he was masturbating on the other end me and my friends thought it was funny and use to like to mess with him on the phone. I also remember that whenever I walked to work each day there was a white car 4 door i remember that use to circle the streets right by the dennys rest and try to lure girls to his window he was probably 40 or so he tried to get me a few time he would drive by and ask me where he could get a good cup of coffee and did I need a ride I’m wearing a Denny’s uniform I knew in my gut if I went near his car I would regret it. it was just one of those gut feeling you get when something is not right.. I could of been Mr. Rivera but it also could of been the guy in the white car kind of like a Chrysler or ford square box looking thing I saw both on the that day 1/20/86 the white the day before. To add more strange to this very strange event in my life we had a group of physics’ that came in regularly. not that I believe in physics’ but a several weeks before one of the told me one day I would be walking to work and someone would offer me a ride don’t take it, it will be your last I had forgotten all about it since I don’t believe in physics until that evening when they came in as usual and he said to me it happened didn’t it? I had not remembered until that moment. he then said if you would of gotten that car you would be dead right now Not sure if this makes sense to anyone or if it helps either side find the truth but I thought I would share just in case. I hope this will help you find the truth for Stacy and her family

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