After nearly two years of investigation, Miami prosecutors won’t press charges against the officer who fatally tasered 18-year-old graffiti artist Israel Hernandez.
“The investigation has determined that the officer was legally justified in his use of force,” District Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle wrote in a 36-page report.
Police spotted Hernandez tagging an abandoned McDonald’s in Miami beach on August 2013. According to the report, the teen took off when he saw the police officers and engaged into a foot chase for a third of a mile. Officer Jorge Mercado finally caught up with him. At that time, the men allegedly ran towards each other and Mercado fired his Taser once, leaving Hernandez unconscious. He died less than an hour later.
The teen’s death, which drew national media attention and protests across South Florida, fed into an already existing debate about Tasers and how police use them. Can a device that is designed to deliver 50,000 volts into a person for five seconds truly be considered “non-lethal?”
According to Amnesty International, more than 500 people have died in the United States since 2001 after being shocked with Tasers. A Fusion investigation on the case found that it is very rare for forensic offices to list electro-shock weapons as a contributing factor or cause of death in police-involved incidents. In fact, Hernandez’s case marked the first time that a electronic control device is attributed to the death of an individual.
Miami-Dade Medical Examiner Dr. Mark Schuman did attribute Hernandez’s sudden cardiac arrest to an “energy device discharge” (Taser), but ruled the case as an accident because “there was no reasonable expectations that the use of the device would result in death.”
What Dr. Schuman is saying here is that Officer Mercado, a Miami Beach police veteran, didn’t know that Tasers have the potential to kill, and therefore Hernandez’s death was not intentional.
Dr. Shuman, who described Hernandez as a “healthy 18-year-old male with no significant diseases or medical history,” also noted that Taser deaths are rare but they can occur “under certain circumstances.”
The taser prongs landed on either side of Hernandez’s heart, something that weapon manufacturer Taser International advised against, because Taser exposure near the heart has a “low probability” of inducing extra heart beats, which could eventually lead to cardiac arrest, especially on children and thin individuals like Hernandez.
According to the report, prosecutors considered charges from murder to manslaughter, but their findings led them to believe Mercado used appropriate force on that morning.
What Dr. Schuman is saying here is that Officer Mercado, a Miami Beach police veteran, didn’t know that Tasers have the potential to kill.
In a state where no police officer has been charged for the use of force in 26 years, the decision does come as a surprise. Part of the problem is that Tasers are considered non-lethal weapons under state laws, and the standards to prosecute law enforcement officers in Florida are very high.
To go forward with a manslaughter prosecution, the most likely of all criminal charges, prosecutors would have had to prove that Mercado acted with “gross and flagrant” negligence.
“It would be unethical for us to charge a crime knowing that we did not believe that we could prove our case beyond a reasonable doubt,” prosecutors wrote.
The officer would have been justified on the use of “any” force pursuant to Florida laws and the department’s policies, the report says.
“The only time an officer is not permitted to use force in arresting a person is if the arrest is unlawful and known by the officer to be unlawful.”
Prosecutors said Mercado had probable cause to arrest Hernandez for criminal mischief, at least a misdemeanor, and probably a felony because the damage to the building likely exceeded $1,000.
“The police, whose obligation it is to enforce the laws of the State of Florida, are not in the practice of allowing those who have committed crimes to simply run away from the scene and escape…There is no legal distinction between whether the felony the subject committed was a violent felony or a property crime,” prosecutors said.
In fact, Mercado could have also claimed self-defense before a jury because the teen was allegedly running towards him.
“It would be reasonable for Officer Mercado to believe that Hernandez-Llach would have knocked him down onto the ground to get away, which could have caused great bodily harm, ” the report, which doesn’t include Mercado’s testimony, says.
The report offers a detailed description at what led up to the graffiti artist’s death and was released with an animated version of the crime scene and the Taser discharge.
Only a handful of police departments track and monitor Taser deployments in the field, Fusion found. The Department of Justice, which collects annual data on arrest-related deaths, does not include Taser cases because they told Fusion they are “highly controversial.”
The prosecutor’s report also says that the Taser that killed Hernandez was thoroughly analyzed by an outside source and there were no signs that the weapon malfunctioned that morning.
Hernandez tested positive for marijuana and a synthetic hallucinogen known as “N-Bomb” but neither drug contributed to his death according to the medical examiner.
The announcement comes just two weeks before the second anniversary of Hernandez’s death.
“The family is devastated.They will continuing fighting, they won’t stop fighting for justice.” Jorge Estomba, a family’s spokesperson said.
The Hernandez family had filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the city of Miami and weapon manufacturer Taser International.