The First 48 Makes Millions Off Imprisoning Innocents

<i>The First 48</i> Makes Millions Off Imprisoning Innocents

No one thought twice about the gunshots. It was just before midnight on NW 77th Street in Little Haiti. At that time of night, neighbors would later tell police, they often hear gunfire. Usually, it's some jacked addict playing around like a fool. Other times, it's significantly worse. But in this Miami neighborhood, where nearly one in 60 is a victim of violent crime, you don't mess with someone else's business.

Miami Police would grossly misrepresent witness statements and tell outright lies.

So when a curvaceous 18-year-old woman named Ciara Armbrister ducked out of her one-bedroom apartment just minutes after hearing multiple gunshots, she wasn't worried. Wearing Spider-Man socks, she padded down the weedy alley behind her building toward the apartment of the teenager she'd recently started sleeping with. She knew 18-year-old Jonathan Volcy, confident and smooth, was a drug dealer. But so were a lot of people in this neighborhood.

Her mood darkened, however, when she saw Volcy's back door wide open. Strange, she thought. The back door's never open. She crept into the 500-square-foot apartment, cluttered with Moon Pie wrappers and baggies of coke. Peeking her head around the corner, she saw them: two bodies, face-down, drenched in blood.

Taiwan Smart repeatedly said he didn't commit or witness the murders. The cops didn't listen.
Marta Xochilt Perez
Taiwan Smart repeatedly said he didn't commit or witness the murders. The cops didn't listen.
A killer executed Raynathan Ray, 14, and Jonathan Volcy, 18, with single bullets to the backs of their heads.
Courtesy of Joe Klock
A killer executed Raynathan Ray, 14, and Jonathan Volcy, 18, with single bullets to the backs of their heads.

Armbrister couldn't breathe, couldn't think. She had to get out of there. Moments later, she was pounding at the door of a neighbor, who put down his X-Box controller. Armbrister's socks, he noticed, were sopping crimson. "Somebody shot them boys!" she shrieked. "Somebody shot them boys!"

It didn't take long for the cops to arrive. Close behind was a camera crew filming an episode of The First 48, one of television's most-watched reality crime programs. The A&E show hinges on the premise that detectives have 48 hours to solve a murder before the trail goes cold. And in the double murder of Volcy and his 14-year-old housemate, Raynathan Ray, the clock was already ticking.

Under the camera's gaze, detectives quickly assembled a grisly assortment of facts. Seven bullet holes pockmarked the apartment. Four 9mm Luger bullet casings littered the floor. The side window was open six inches. Bloody footprints and shoe prints marked the white tile floor like a macabre piece of art. And most important, both victims had been killed by a single gunshot to the back of the head. Whoever executed the boys had been inside the apartment. This had been an "inside job," as the episode would later be named.

It was great television. And sure enough, within days, barely past the show's deadline, Miami Police had their man. The missing roommate, 21-year-old Taiwan Smart — who'd been present before the murders but conspicuously absent afterward — was charged on November 18, 2009, with two counts of second-degree murder. "What we have is a circumstantial case, but the circumstantial evidence that we have tells a strong story," Detective Fabio Sanchez said into the cameras as Smart was carted away in handcuffs. Sanchez paused. "It's a shame that these two victims, who were very young, had to lose their lives to a person who they thought was their friend."

But the cops' case wasn't nearly as strong as Sanchez made it sound. To lock up Smart — which they'd do for a staggering 20 months — Miami Police would grossly misrepresent witness statements and tell outright lies. They'd take an impoverished kid and destroy his character not only on the streets but on a national scale. Finally, they'd ignore the man who was fingered as the real killer.

The tragedy inflicted upon this wrongfully accused man, however, is only the latest injustice in this show's history. In Detroit, city police shot a 7-year-old girl in the head in a bungled attempt to catch a suspect on The First 48. In Houston, another man was locked up for three years after cops wrongfully accused him of murder within the first 48 hours. And in Miami, according to a New Times examination of court records, at least 15 men have walked free of murder charges spawned under the program's glare.

Despite it all — sloppy crime scenes, rushed arrests, ruined lives — The First 48, which has now reached its 13th season, is as popular as ever. Millions of Americans tune in to every new episode, and with ratings as seductive as these, who cares about a few botched investigations?


Around 1 a.m. the night of the murders, a frantic rattling sounded outside a barracks-style home blocks from the crime scene. Inside the house, a middle-aged man with a thick black mustache cracked opened his front door to find a thin, jittery kid at his gate, whispering, "Let me in, let me in." The moustached man, Eduardo Rivera, knew his visitor as local boy Taiwan Smart. Everyone in the neighborhood knew Smart. He was a wannabe rapper who had short dreadlocks he couldn't keep his hands out of and was, Rivera said, "tall like crazy."

Rivera let Smart inside, noticing he was barefoot. His size-11 feet looked stained with a tan — almost reddish — color. "Do you have a phone?" Smart rattled in a machine-gun cadence, according to a statement Rivera later gave police. "I need to call the police! There's been a shootout at my crib!"

Rivera's wife, Wanda Fernandez, pulled out a chair for the restive youth. The couple, who didn't have a phone, told him to slow down, take it one step at a time. What happened? Smart, squeezing a cigarette between his fingers, was near tears.

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9 comments
frankeshoemaker
frankeshoemaker

I have fond memories of this neighborhood before the street trash took over. My grandmother lived on the block of 79th & Biscayne Blvd. back in the 70's.


Bottom line, it's the TV show's fault for street trash committing murder and for an under staffed homicide department pressured to close cases. Geniuses! All you NIMBY's cracked the case. Your prize? A challenge. I challenge you to move into this neighborhood, become a communist...uh hum...I mean..."community orgranizer" and work to "change" this neighborhood. 

frankd4
frankd4 topcommenter

.......................not that a DRUG ADDICTED "witness" won't rat out whomever is convenient and give FALSE testimony against someone just to get their own a$$ out of trouble - the police simply have pressure to bring someone in to be charged for the crime = period

frankd4
frankd4 topcommenter

.............................from my general observation of police investigations historically the problem is the theory that even IF the wrong guy gets the sentence that guy was going to EVENTUALLY do something to put him in jail anyway..........so whatever the evidence shows for any particular crime as long as someone gets convicted and put away the streets are safer and the community can rest comfortably knowing the criminals are being locked away...........so fifty years later we can now look back and see this got us deeper into it = period

frankd4
frankd4 topcommenter

...........................the show doesn't "imprison" anyone, either innocent or guilty,  it just video tapes and then airs the events = period

the judicial system IMPRISONs, defendants as represented by their counsel, who lose their trials and hearings in front of a jury and or judge and the court process determines who get IMPRISONed = period

to blame the show for bad police investigations or errors in the justice system or just poverty and drugs and dishonest people involved in a very bad situation isn't because of a show - it happens all the time with or without TV cameras

smdrpepper
smdrpepper topcommenter

@frankd4Your missing the point of the article.  Its the fact that they RUSHED the investigations and forced the evidence to conform to what the idea they had in the show in order to put the wrong guy in prison, or shoot up the wrong house in the sake of "good tv".

frankd4
frankd4 topcommenter

......................coincidental and circumstantial JUST like the evidence and processing of the crime IN WHICH CASE the verdict should have been appealed by the defendants attorney and errors made continue to be made with or without TV cameras (the BEST example is when a BLACK harvard professor was arrested in boston for "breaking into" his own house despite the boston police having the professor positively identified and his story corroborated and verified by HARVARD)

it was the judge who decided on the sentence AND it was the commander who picked the wrong house - with or without TV rushing them

frankd4
frankd4 topcommenter

@smdrpepper @frankd4 


...................i agree he wasn't going to be represented by an OJ-caliber "dream team" but he did get his "day" in court (and eventually was acquitted and released) = but my observation is that his problems weren't because of a TV show = period = they are because he is BLACK and haitian and poor and in a very bad community of drugs and criminals and bad people

smdrpepper
smdrpepper topcommenter

@frankd4And I doubt this kid could even dream of affording an good attorney to fight this.  At best he had a public defender which likely did not remember his name.

 
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