Smart — unaware that Armbrister had been interviewed, and emboldened by his mother's advice — called the cops. He said he wanted to talk. Officers agreed to meet him at a Kwik Stop at NE 135th Street. Smart wore a black shirt and shorts. He paced outside the gas station, waiting. This is the right decision, he told himself. This is the right decision. But when he saw detectives arrive with a camera-wielding "chubby white guy in a yellow polo," he knew he'd made a mistake.

A second person then appeared before the window. He held a black 9mm Luger.

With cameras rolling, the cops snapped a pair of cuffs around Smart's wrists, and it would be two years until he'd be free again.

Few jobs elicit greater esteem than a detective's. There's a cultural fascination with solving murders, manifested in the sheer number of TV shows that deconstruct homicide investigations. Crime television — from the endless stream of CSI spinoffs to Cold Case to Law & Order — account for nearly one-fourth of all prime-time television programming. This demand means production companies are constantly under pressure to expand upon the standard crime television formula, according to a 2007 study called "The CSI Effect." No channel is more bound to that effect than A&E. Over the past decade, the station has birthed a dizzying assortment of crime programs: Cold Case Files, American Justice, City Confidential, Investigative Reports, Crime 360, and The First 48, which first aired in 2004.

Detectives interrogated Smart for hours in a room they call "the box."
Photo still from A&E's "The First 48"
Detectives interrogated Smart for hours in a room they call "the box."


The narrative structure of The First 48 is both conventional and chronological, and nearly every episode begins with a murder. But the show's true genius lies in how it ratchets up the drama with an artificially imposed deadline.

"For homicide detectives," the narrator pronounces in a gravelly timbre at the program's start, "the clock starts ticking the moment they are called. Their chance of solving a murder is cut in half if they don't get a lead within the first 48 hours." Throughout the program, producers splice into the frame a ticking clock, and detectives may fret over their deadline. Dramatic tension mounts as investigators collect evidence, interview witnesses, and identify suspects, until it hits a crescendo with a climactic confrontation between suspect and detective during the episode's final interrogation.

On November 17, 2009, Taiwan Smart found himself inside "the box." The 21-year-old slid into a chair across from Detective T.C. Cepero, a veteran, hard-bitten cop who looks like a miniature Mr. Clean and has a Facebook fan page dedicated to his First 48 exploits. Beside him was Detective Fabio Sanchez, who opened a blue folder. (Both officers and their superiors declined repeated requests for comment.)

Smart was nervous, fidgeting back and forth, grabbing at his dreadlocks. He refused to eat a Subway sandwich they'd brought for him. For hours, the detectives listened to Smart unspool the same story he'd told everyone: An unknown person had arrived at his apartment's open window and shot inside. "I was nervous for my life," Smart said. "I heard the shooting, and I took off running out the back. I didn't see nobody get shot, I didn't see any blood, I didn't see anything. I just got out of there."

The first hint that the cops weren't on Smart's side arrived three hours into the interrogation. "You're not telling us something, or else you're bending the truth," Cepero suddenly said, eyebrows plunging into a scowl. "We have all gathered a lot of evidence, and it talks."

"What are you talking about?" Smart gasped.

"The evidence talks," Cepero replied, telling Smart the shooter had been inside the apartment, where cops had collected four bullet casings. Plus, both men had been shot point-blank, in the back of the head. "Don't get into [a lie] you can't get out of."

"You think I'm lying?" Smart asked. He pleaded multiple times for a polygraph test. He sank his head in his hands. "You're trying to get me to say something I don't know."

"You're telling me a story you concocted, and it's bullshit," Cepero told him, asserting that if Smart's story had been accurate, the window would have been shattered. (Police evidence logs show the window had been open six inches.) "I believe the evidence ten times more. I'm calling you a liar because you're blowing smoke up my ass."

Sanchez leaned in so close to Smart, he could smell him. "You know what the evidence is telling me right now?" Sanchez seethed. "That you're a fucking liar."

Eleven hours into the interrogation, when Smart realized he was going to jail for two murders, he wept uncontrollably. "I don't want to go to jail for something I didn't do!" Smart, now cuffed to the chair, begged Sanchez, who wrote in an arrest report that the youth's statements weren't "consistent" with evidence.

"I'm asking you," Smart wept. "Out of the decency of your heart, please help me! Please!"

But days later at Smart's probable-cause hearing, when Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Jorge Cueto asked for harder proof linking Smart to the murders, Sanchez perpetuated the injustice.

The detective, wearing a dark-red button-down and a darker expression, first misrepresented witness Armbrister's interview. "She could hear [Smart and the victims] arguing over drugs and money," he told the judge.

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My Voice Nation Help

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 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 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 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 fifty years later we can now look back and see this got us deeper into it = period

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


@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 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 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


@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.