You've probably heard about the Hollywood cops who framed a woman in a car crash involving a fellow officer. And you've likely seen the video from a cruiser's dashboard camera that shows the lead officer, Dewey Pressley, talking about his willingness to "Walt Disney" the facts and make up stories to protect his brothers in blue.
"I don't want to make things up ever, because it's wrong," Pressley tells a fellow officer on the videotape, which he obviously didn't realize was picking up his conversation. "But if I need to bend it a little bit to protect a cop, I'm gonna."
What Pressley did was fabricate a story about a cat causing a car accident in February that was actually the fault of fellow officer Joel Francisco, who slammed into the back of a car driven by Alexandra Torrensvilas. Pressley apparently thought he could get away with making up the story because Torrensvilas had been drinking and his word would win out against that of a drunk driver.
The scary thing is that Pressley would have almost surely gotten away with it if not for the video. Prosecutors promptly dropped DUI and other trumped-up charges against Torrensvilas.
But the fallout from Pressley's misconduct has likely just begun. Broward County Public Defender Howard Finkelstein is gathering all the cases involving Pressley and other officers involved in the cover-up with hopes of getting those dropped as well.
Perhaps the highest-profile case that may be affected by Pressley's on-tape admissions is a racially charged police chase in 2000 that ended in what many felt was an unjustified beating of a suspect named Jerome McClellion by three Miami-Dade cops in a suburban backyard. The beating was caught on videotape by a news crew in a helicopter, and the images were played not only throughout South Florida but the country.
It was, rightly or wrongly, compared to the Rodney King police beating in Los Angeles. It seized South Florida's attention, polarizing people along racial lines. Al Sharpton came to town for a visit with McClellion, and the black community was outraged when prosecutors chose not to charge the three cops with battery.
Pressley played a small but crucial role in that case and was accused by McClellion's defense attorney of, yes, lying on the witness stand to protect fellow officers.
The chase began after Miami-Dade police spotted McClellion, then 19 years old, in a stolen black Escalade. He fled from them and led them on a wild chase north into Hollywood. Though officers claimed that McClellion waved a gun and fired it, he wasn't armed when he was captured, and there was no evidence from forensic tests on his hand that he'd fired a weapon. An intense search of the entire chase route also found no gun.
At one point, Pressley and other Hollywood officers tried to place spikes on the road to stop the black SUV that McClellion was driving. The suspect's vehicle flew by the Hollywood officers, striking the hand of Officer Luis Ortiz, causing minor injuries. Miami-Dade cruisers also sped past Pressley in pursuit of McClellion.
"We've got shots fired by Metro-Dade," Pressley said into his radio at the time.
Pressley wound up playing a lead role at the 2002 trial. His comment about shots being fired served as a key piece of evidence for defense attorney Barbara Brush. It contradicted the story of the Miami-Dade cops, who claimed to have fired only one shot during the entire chase and not in front of Pressley. It also provided McClellion justification for fleeing in the SUV because he was afraid for his life.
But when Pressley took the stand in 2002, he testified that he misspoke into the radio. He said he had meant to say that Metro-Dade cops had reported that shots had been fired by the suspect (which also turned out to be untrue). It had just come out wrong in the heat of the moment.
The Miami Herald story on Pressley's testimony was headlined: "I Never Saw Shots Fired, Officer Says at Chase Trial."
Defense attorney Brush accused Pressley and other police officers of lying about the chase and framing McClellion in an attempt to keep themselves from being blamed and possibly charged with battery themselves.
"These charges are a setup," she told the jury in closing. "You have to decide if these police officers are not telling the truth to convict Jerome illegally."
Pressley's testimony may have sealed the fate of McClellion, who was convicted by the jury and sentenced to 30 years in prison. He's scheduled to be released in 2030.
Brush says Pressley's admission on the dashboard camera that he's willing to lie to protect fellow cops has only added to her conviction that McClellion was the victim of a police conspiracy.
"After all these years, the truth has finally come out of what they are willing to do to protect each other," Brush told me last week. "The extent and length to which they were willing to compromise the truth for something so minor is telling. There was a lot more on the line in the McClellion case. There was an improper police chase, and they could have been in trouble for beating up my client.
"If they are going to compromise their integrity in such a minor car accident, then I am positive they filed false police reports against Jerome McClellion when there was a lot more at stake."
The two cases, side by side, are indeed a bit eerie. Pressley's use of the term "Walt Disney" to signify framing the evidence and his talk of knowing exactly how to write the arrest report in the crash indicate a familiarity with the territory. It's easy to imagine he has done that kind of thing before.
Maybe in one of the most controversial and divisive criminal cases of the decade.