The First 48 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.
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.
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!"
Miami Dolphins vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
TicketsSun., Nov. 19, 1:00pm
Miami Heat vs. Indiana Pacers
TicketsSun., Nov. 19, 5:00pm
Florida Panthers vs Toronto Maple Leafs
TicketsWed., Nov. 22, 7:00pm
Miami Heat vs. Boston Celtics
TicketsWed., Nov. 22, 7:30pm
Florida Panthers vs Chicago Blackhawks
TicketsSat., Nov. 25, 7:00pm
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.
A knock had come at his apartment window just before midnight, Smart said. It was the same window from which his longtime best friend and roommate, Jonathan Volcy, sold drugs. Volcy, a Haitian orphan whose only family was a nearby sister, was on the phone with his girlfriend. Neither Volcy nor 14-year-old Raynathan Ray, who'd recently run away from his El Portal home after saying he wanted to be a gangster, wanted to answer the knock. So Smart opened the window. "There was this one dude who was all mumbly and nervous," Smart told the couple. Smart said he couldn't make out the man's face. "All he was saying was, 'Gimme sumthin'. Gimme sumthin'.
"So I said, 'Give you what?' "
A second person then appeared before the window. He held a black 9mm Luger. From within him came a deep voice: "What now, nigga? What now?" Smart dove out of the way as bullets filled the room, striking the freezer, the entertainment center, the walls. When the shooting subsided, Smart said, he sprinted out the back door, yelling for help.
As the couple listened, suspicion germinated. First, there were Smart's feet. They looked auburn, like he'd stepped in something red. Was it blood? Then, Smart's story seemed to defy reason. "With what happened to the other two, how's he going to come out without a scratch?" Rivera asked the cops. "It's common sense."
"I think he killed them," Fernandez later told investigators. "When he was in my house, he looked nervous, then he was OK, then he would cry, then he was fine. He knew his buddies were dead before the police got there."
Their doubts about Smart were confirmed, they said, when he departed their house and found a phone at another neighbor's. The youth placed at least 20 calls but none to police. Would an innocent man not call the cops?
Smart walked out of the neighborhood the next morning at 5, mulling the same question. He knew the police were looking for him but vacillated about whether to call them. "The way I grew up," he now tells New Times, "snitches get stitches. That's just how it is."
At a friend's place in North Miami, Smart took a call from his mom, Flora Smart. She's a rounded woman with a lazy eye who bounced in and out of homelessness with Taiwan during his childhood. While she looked for work in those days, the boy was often left alone or in the care of others. When he was only 6, she recalls, Taiwan's uncle forced him to smoke marijuana laced with cocaine multiple times before she discovered it. So in the shelters and unemployment lines, Flora and Taiwan had forged a fierce, determined relationship: They'd been through shit before, and they'd make it through again.
"Mom, my friends been shot!" Smart wept into the phone. "And people think I did it!"
"Taiwan," she recalls whispering into the phone, "the police are looking for you." In fact, she told her son, a thick man named Detective Fabio Sanchez had already arrived at her apartment to see if Smart was hiding there. He had a manicured widow's peak and a harried camera crew in tow. "The police says the killer's out there looking for you," she continued. "You need to talk with them. They can protect you."
But if interviews with the woman who discovered the bodies are any indication, police had different intentions. Around the same time Smart hung up the phone, Ciara Armbrister emerged from a soundproof room at the Miami Police Department that detectives call "the box." She'd been in there for hours, telling and retelling how she'd found the bodies and what had happened before the murders. The transcript of the interview reads like something out of Waiting for Godot, as detectives repeat the same question over and over. They wanted to know if Smart had argued with his roommates before the murders.
As Armbrister affirmed seven times in the interview, there had been an argument before the murders, but it hadn't involved Smart and the victims. It had been between Smart and an unnamed "Spanish guy."
Q: Was there any time that Taiwan argued with [victim Volcy]?
Q: The argument was not towards each other?
Q: Was there a time when Taiwan was arguing with [victim Ray]?
Q: So the argument was strictly with the Spanish guy?
This information, however, was disregarded in The First 48, in which the narrator growls, "The man the witness says the victims had argued with is named Taiwan." The police report likewise misrepresented her statement: "According to the witness," Detective Fabio Sanchez later wrote, "the defendant was involved in a violent argument with the victims over money and narcotics."
Armbrister eventually signed an affidavit stating that Smart had argued with the victims in Creole over money — despite the fact that neither she nor Smart speak Creole. Reached by New Times, Armbrister expressed outrage at the cops' treatment of her during that interview. "They made what I said into something entirely different," she says.
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.
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.
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.
Then when the judge asked how Smart's story conflicted with the evidence, the cop distorted Smart's statement. "Smart claims the shooter shot through the window, killing both victims," Sanchez said, despite the fact Smart had repeatedly claimed he did not witness the murders. "There is no evidence the shooting occurred outside. It occurred inside."
Hearing this, Cueto nodded, the gavel struck, and the boy, now formally charged with two counts of murder, was led away.
At the time of Taiwan Smart's arrest, there were several people detectives may have wanted to interview. One witness, named only "Christine" in the investigation's internal logs, said the killer had sought vengeance for a past Little Haiti murder — a tale corroborated by Smart. Another witness, 40-year-old Wayne Mitchell, had heard that his friend's cousins were behind the killings.
Perhaps these tips seemed too tangential or the witnesses too unreliable, or maybe detectives felt the heat of The First 48's deadline, but cops didn't investigate the leads.
Though the consequences of this lapse would be severe, other mistakes filmed by The First 48 — which has shot in Miami, Detroit, Dallas, Memphis, and Houston — have been substantially more tragic.
In Detroit on May 16, 2010, after First 48 videographers expressed a desire to achieve a "good show" and capture "great video footage," police stormed a duplex in an impoverished neighborhood, according to a federal lawsuit. It was past midnight. All the streetlights had suddenly gone black. The cops were hunting for a murder suspect. As cameras rolled and dogs bayed madly, city police fired a flash-bang grenade through a front window.
"Police!" one officer cried. The grenade exploded next to a living-room couch where a 7-year-old girl, Aiyana Jones, slept. From the patio, a cop lowered a submachine gun and fired into the house, striking the girl in the head. Upon entry, however, the cops realized they'd raided the wrong house. Their suspect lived next door. The officer who fired the gun, Joseph Weekley, was indicted for manslaughter and awaits trial. First 48 producer Allison Howard pleaded guilty last year to obstruction of justice after she lied about "copying, showing, or giving video footage she shot of the raid to third parties," Detroit prosecutors said. The episode was never aired.
While the drama saturated the city, 1,300 miles south in Houston, an innocent man named Cameron Coker languished inside a Harris County jail awaiting trial. In mid-July 2009, 16-year-old Eric Elizarraraz had been shot at an apartment complex just off Highway 6. The boy had confronted a group of men who'd insulted his girlfriend. At least three witnesses offered county deputies a similar description of the killer — tall, light-skinned, skinny — and later picked 18-year-old Coker out of a lineup. As cameras rolled, Coker, who professed innocence, was arrested and charged with murder.
When the episode "Straight Menace" aired on March 11, 2010, viewers howled for Coker's execution. "Put him down," one commenter wrote in an online forum. "They got the death penalty in Houston?"
But the case was substantially more fraught with error than viewers realized. Though the show didn't broadcast it, none of the witnesses whom detectives used were positive Coker was the shooter.
In February 2012 — after Coker had spent nearly three years in jail — Steven M. Smith, a professor of psychology at Texas A&M and an expert in human memory, tracked down the witnesses as part of Coker's defense. The first, Andrew Nguyen, confessed he hadn't seen the shooting and had "taken a good guess," picking Coker out of the lineup "based on what my other friends had told me," according to court documents.
Another witness, Roberto Valdez, who confessed he'd been drunk and high on weed and Xanax the day of the murder, said he told detectives he wasn't sure who pulled the trigger and would "guess." At the bottom of the photo array, he wrote, "I'm p.," which he later told Smith had meant, "I'm probably wrong." A third witness also admitted he hadn't been sure.
In mid-2012, after spending 1,095 days in prison, Coker was released. Prosecutors' closeout memo had cited "witness identification problems."
"I couldn't believe they did that to me," Coker now tells New Times. "It was like a torture that no one should have to go through in this life." Coker's attorney, Vivian King, says she's repeatedly asked The First 48's producers to stop rebroadcasting the episode now that Coker has been exonerated, but they've declined. First 48 producers refused to comment for this article.
"Just imagine the image they made out of me," Coker says, adding he fears retribution for a crime he didn't do. "Even when I walk places I've never been, people know me from The First 48 without really knowing what happened."
Each of the 113 cases filmed in Miami also still air periodically — even those featuring men who later walked free of murder charges: Donta Boyd, Malcolm Williams, Kevin Goode, DeMarcus Alexander, Cory Harris, Vladimir Hernandez, Frank Sands, Quintin Barnett, Tyree Kemp, John Molina, Neville Moore, Myron Morales, Rene de la Paz, Antwan Kennedy, and Smart.
"I talked to a lawyer about suing, but there wasn't nothing we could do," says Frank Sands, who spent three years in prison on murder charges and hasn't found steady work since. "Because [The First 48] shows 'All suspects are presumed innocent until proven guilty' at the beginning of the program, they're covered."
A&E shirks responsibility for episodes that broadcast incorrect information, and spokespeople confess they don't reedit or correct flawed programs beyond stating at a show's end that murder charges were dropped. "We simply film the investigations as they unfold," a spokesperson said. "Every episode states clearly that all individuals are innocent until proven guilty."
The preamble has A&E covered legally, perhaps, but ethically? Miami Detective Fernando Bosch admitted under oath in 2011 that he has "play-acted" parts of investigations for The First 48 and couldn't tell upon later viewing which parts were staged and which were real. "Most of [the detectives] do things like that," he said.
More troubling still, the show almost exclusively highlights some of the most impoverished neighborhoods across the nation. Nearly every person charged with murder belongs to the same demographic: young, male, black, urban, poor, and without resources to challenge a television conglomerate like A&E. They all resemble Taiwan Smart.
As though constructing a mammoth jigsaw puzzle, Marlene Montaner laid out all of the files on the floor of her Brickell apartment. The documents spilled past the kitchen, through the living room, and into her bedroom. It was afternoon, early 2010. And Montaner had just received most of the police files on Taiwan Smart.
Montaner, a veteran court-appointed defense attorney who's defended dozens of clients charged with murder, knew exactly how to start. First, look for the most damaging evidence: confessions, witness accounts, whether the defendant had possession of the murder weapon. Montaner freely admits that most of her clients have had at least some complicity in their crimes. So as she hopscotched across the documents, she was resigned to believe she'd find the worst.
"But then I was like, 'Wait a second,' " Montaner recalls. "There weren't any confessions or anyone pointing the finger at Taiwan or any direct evidence, and I remember just looking for someone anywhere saying he was the one who did it. You had one witness in which police misrepresented what she said, but that was it." She visited Taiwan the next day. His manner conveyed innocence, but who could be sure? She paid for his polygraph test, and he passed.
That's when she hired a private detective and scrutinized the police investigation. She says they found a "sloppy," "rushed" case that hinged upon a contaminated crime scene and one witness who hadn't seen the murders. Police hadn't arrived at the 77th Street apartment until more than an hour after the murders, and by then, bloody footprints — none of which matched Smart's foot size — inked the cluttered space.
Detectives had also made a big deal of the bullet casings, claiming their presence inside the home refuted Smart's assertion that the shooter had been outside. But it's unclear from the investigation's log whether police ever thoroughly searched the apartment's grassy exterior for additional casings — a vital lapse. According to the logs, police discovered fewer casings than bullet holes, six of which had trajectories leading from the window where Smart claimed the stranger had shot.
But as weeks melted into months and months into years, nothing happened. Sanchez didn't release his lead investigator's report, which is necessary for trial, until after Smart had spent more than a year in prison. (Sanchez later "admitted" to prosecutor Marie Mato that he "dropped the ball" in his delay, according to emails obtained by New Times.)
Smart, awaiting trial and convinced he'd never be free, was transferred to the Miami-Dade Stockade. "Everyone in there was like, 'Man, you in here for two murders? It don't matter if you did it or not, you ain't ever getting out,' " Smart remembers. "There were guys in there who'd been charged with murder like me, and they'd been waiting for trial for seven years."
Then, as depression threatened to swallow the youth, serendipity struck. Within the stockade are sprawling cells that house dozens of men at a time, and inside Smart's, a new inmate named Arsenio Carter had just arrived.
Twenty-one-year-old Carter was nearly as tall as Smart and possessed black, serious eyes lost among a wild tangle of dreadlocks. Police had charged him with holding up a Starbucks near the University of Miami's campus. (Those allegations were later dropped.)
Day after day, Carter eyed Smart. "Aren't you the guy who's in jail for those two Little Haiti murders?" Carter asked Smart, according to court records filed in Smart's defense. From that moment, a tension grew between the two young men. Carter allegedly taunted Smart in front of other inmates and derided him behind his back.
On January 11, Carter took aside inmate Earnest Evans, 20, whom he knew from the outside. "I have a secret to tell you," Carter said, according to Evans' later testimony. "But you can't tell anyone or you'll have an enemy for life." Carter motioned at Smart. "I let that fuck nigger get away," Evans alleged Carter said. "I went to rob [his apartment], and he got away, but I killed two other dudes that was there."
Evans said Carter detailed that night with great specificity: "My friend pretended to buy drugs while I crouched behind the window. When he had the attention of the guy at the window, I sprung up and fired some shots into the house. I seen one of the guys leave." Carter said he pointed the gun at one of the two men remaining inside the apartment, telling him to open the front door.
Carter allegedly said that once inside the apartment, he asked if there were "any drugs or money in the house. They didn't respond," he whispered. "So I laid them on the floor, and I shot them."
Evans was nervous. Burdened with this knowledge, he confided in a fellow inmate, Herbert Jackson. Jackson later testified that Evans came to him and said, "Fuck it, I'm just going to tell you. You know the two bodies Taiwan is in here for? Arsenio just told me he did it!"
As days passed, Smart gradually grew suspicious of Carter. He seemed to know too much about the murders. Carter once referenced a homemade bong inside the apartment that only Smart and his dead roommates would have known existed.
Their petty arguments ballooned into heated confrontations. One day, Smart commented that a woman on TV was "ugly."
"Your girlfriend's ugly," Carter told him. "Your ho's ugly."
Both men rose and approached each other. A crowd swelled around them, murmuring.
Evans, who hadn't heard the beginnings of the fight, appeared. He assumed the argument involved the murders and asked, "You told him?"
Smart turned. "Told me what?" he asked. "Told me what?" Eyes suddenly electric, he looked at Carter.
"You know too much!" he yelled. "I know you killed my friends!"
Smart charged Carter and slammed him to the concrete floor. Bellows erupted inside the stockade. Carter wriggled free and pounded on the guard's gate and was eventually reassigned to a different cell, prison records show.
Smart didn't know what to do. Jailhouse informants are notoriously unreliable. But neither Evans nor Jackson sought shorter sentences in exchange for their depositions, so Smart's attorney quickly interviewed them and shipped their statements to prosecutors. On June 6, 2011, Smart took two separate state-sponsored polygraph tests. An expert hammered him with questions for hours. Ultimately, "Smart denied any involvement, and it was the opinion of [the expert] that he was being truthful," according to prosecutor Mato's closeout memo.
Prosecutors summoned Detective Sanchez and told him what had happened. Nearly two years after Sanchez had called Smart a "fucking liar," Sanchez now "agreed [the state] could not prove their case, and it appeared Taiwan Smart was not the shooter," Mato wrote.
Sanchez was not reprimanded for his work on the case, though this wasn't the first time he may have rushed to judgment, his internal affairs file shows. In 2007, Sanchez had arrested philanthropist Lucinda Munoz, 58, at Bank of America after she tried to cash a bad check for $3,506 that an eBay customer had sent her. Munoz was jailed for one night and charged with forgery and grand theft — allegations dropped a month later. "Apparently, Sanchez takes the experience of being thrown in jail and charged with a major felony lightly," Munoz's unsustained complaint says.
The Miami Police Department has not apologized to Smart. A&E has continued to broadcast its First 48 episode featuring Smart. And Carter, who's since been released from prison, hasn't been seriously investigated by any other agency for his possible connection to the murders.
Taiwan Smart, now 26 and head-shaven, untangles his long legs from inside a battered Volkswagen Passat and declares he doesn't want to stay long. The car has just pulled up before a small, five-unit apartment complex in the shape of a bowling alley. "I feel like this is where my life ended," he says, walking toward the back of the building, where his friends had been shot. "I should have died that night, and I wish I had. If I had, I wouldn't have to deal with this."
"This" is Smart's life today. In the two years since his release from prison, Smart's luck hasn't turned. With a pair of murder charges on his record, he's struggled to find work or an apartment. He spent months living in a small motel room with his mom, uncle, girlfriend, and two siblings — while supporting them with a $6.09 hourly wage he makes cleaning cars at the Busy Bee off Biscayne Boulevard. Now he and his family live in a claustrophobic apartment where they have neither kitchen sink nor stove, and the electricity flickers on and off.
Meanwhile, The First 48 has arrived at season 13, and even today, nearly 1.4 million people tune in for some airings. But this season, the program hasn't featured Miami, though producers call it the "face" of the show. Last year, Police Chief Manuel Orosa asked producers to donate $10,000 per episode to a local youth sports program that works with at-risk children, but producers declined. So The First 48, which doesn't compensate police departments in any way, left Miami and now films in Broward County, Houston, Cleveland, and Dallas. (Memphis and Detroit have also discontinued their relationships with the show.)
The families of the murdered never see a dime of the show's profits. "No one cared that my boy was killed, and the cops just rushed it for a damn show," says Clyde Ray, the stooped father of Smart's murdered 14-year-old roommate. "Everyone was a victim in this. Them boys killed, that boy who spent two years in prison for it."
At least Smart can still defend himself. Put in touch with attorney Joe Klock, who's taken the case pro bono, Smart has filed a civil lawsuit against the City of Miami for false arrest and imprisonment. "Despite the police questioning of Taiwan for 15 consecutive hours," the lawsuit says, "and his pleas of innocence and his factual accounts, police were only concerned with closing the book on the crime within 48 hours to captivate the public with the expeditious crime-solving... It intentionally placed Taiwan as a remote second in importance to the pursuit of the First 48 marquee."
The lawsuit doesn't specify what monetary compensation, if any, Smart wants. Driving through the streets of his old neighborhood in Little Haiti, which is haunted with the ghosts of nearly one dozen murdered friends, Smart considered the matter. He'd like to one day attend college, maybe even get a small house.
He slowly shook his head. "I can't even think about money," Smart finally says. "I just want my life back. When I was in that interrogation, I remember asking Sanchez if it would have been better off if I'd been killed too. And he said, 'Yes, it would have been better if you'd been killed too.' I just don't want to feel that way anymore. I want my life back."
Get the Things to Do Newsletter
Find out about upcoming events and special offers happening in South Florida.