Miami Beach police officer cleared in graffiti artist's Taser death

Reuters News
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Posted: Jul 23, 2015 6:52 PM

By Zachary Fagenson

MIAMI (Reuters) - A Miami Beach police officer who fatally shot an 18-year-old graffiti artist with a Taser device will not be charged with any wrongdoing over the 2013 incident, state prosecutors said on Thursday.

The decision hinged on Florida law authorizing Officer Jorge Mercado to use force to arrest a fleeing suspect and to protect himself, after he told investigators the artist, Israel Hernandez-Llach, was running toward him during a chase.

"Officer Mercado would have been justified in the use of 'any' force," according to the 38-page report by the Office of the State Attorney for the 11th Judicial District.

In a separate statement, State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle noted that a medical examiner had also determined the death was accidental, leaving "little legal room to pursue any possible criminal charges."

She added: "Our extensive investigation determined that the sad tragedy of this situation is that no one involved intended or anticipated any serious injury occurring to this young man."

Jorge Estomba, a spokesman for the artist's family, said in a statement: "The family will continue the fight to have justice on behalf of their slain son."

Police found Hernandez-Llach spray-painting an abandoned Miami Beach McDonald’s restaurant in the early hours of Aug. 6, 2013.

He was ordered to stop several times as police followed him through alleyways, a building, and over a fence where he fell, injuring himself, police said at the time.

After Hernandez-Llach was tased, officers laughed and high-fived as he lay motionless on the ground, witnesses said. Once in custody, he displayed signs of medical distress and was soon pronounced dead.

Some of Hernandez-Llach’s friends said in media interviews that the group had smoked marijuana that night before deciding to spray-paint.

Hernandez-Llach had remnants of a hallucinogen in his brain tissue, according to a medical examiner’s report.

Known by his nickname “Reefa,” Hernandez-Llach won notice for his graffiti work as well as sculpture and painting. Graffiti with that name as well as a misshapen flower in his memory have appeared on traffic signs and buildings across Miami.

Mercado, placed on leave after the incident, has returned to duty, according to a Miami Beach Police Department spokeswoman.

Miami Beach police chief Daniel Oates said the incident would now be evaluated by an internal affairs investigation. "We will evaluate the actions of our officers that day and whether our tactics, training and equipment need to change," he said.

(Editing by David Adams and Mohammad Zargham)