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Broward homicide investigator at center of DNA controversy
BY WANDA J. DeMARZO
Since December when it was announced that DNA evidence
had posthumously cleared a Broward County man who had
died of cancer on Death Row, the Broward Sheriff's Office's
homicide unit has come under intense scrutiny.
The spotlight has focused on Richard Scheff, a veteran
homicide investigator and former head of the unit who is
accused of lying on the witness stand about the case he
built against Frank Lee Smith.
Meanwhile, several defense attorneys have questioned
whether, in light of the Smith case, Scheff and the homicide
unit he led might have built cases based on coerced
confessions and shaky eyewitness testimony.
Scheff, who began as a patrol officer and rose to become the
leader of BSO's internal affairs unit, was shifted to an
administrative job recently while a special prosecutor
investigates the allegation of perjury.
Sheriff's officials contend that, apart from the Smith case, no
one has presented them with any formal accusations
against Scheff or the homicide squad.
``If someone has a concern or allegations about the way we
do business, they should bring it to our attention. The sheriff
wants to know about that,'' said Cheryl Stopnick, BSO
Scheff declined to be interviewed.
In the wake of the Frank Lee Smith controversy, Sheriff Ken
Jenne has called for DNA tests to be performed on seven
inmates, six of them on Death Row. Of the seven inmates,
Scheff was the detective assigned to two of the cases:
Lancelot Armstrong and Michael Rivera, and the supervisor
on two others: Dwayne Parker and Lewis Lawrence. Scheff
headed the unit when one of the inmates, Robert Consalvo,
was charged with murder.
The six men are the only current Death Row inmates that
The agency's critics say the BSO effort rings hollow.
``Police can't police police,'' said Terry Backus, a Death Row
attorney representing Lancelot Armstrong, whose case is
now under BSO review.
The newest challenge to a BSO murder conviction comes in
the case of Michael Rivera, sentenced to death in 1987 for
the murder of Staci Jazvac. His attorneys claim the
conviction rested on statements Scheff testified to that were
taken out of context and implied Rivera's guilt in the murder,
and the testimony of a jailhouse snitch.
``There was nothing to tie [Rivera] to it except his supposed
statement,'' said Marty McClain, a Death Row attorney
representing Rivera. ``It all depended on Scheff and his
partner's testimony, on whether you believe them or not. The
only physical evidence was a hair follicle that a BSO
forensics examiner concluded was consistent with Staci's
McClain says the Rivera case shows a pattern typical of
several controversial BSO murder convictions: It rests largely
on a confession obtained by Scheff's homicide squad.
The Capital Collateral Regional Counsel, a group of public
defenders located in Tampa, Tallahassee and Fort
Lauderdale representing Death Row inmates, filed two
motions in Broward County Circuit Court on Wednesday
asking the state to reveal all evidence it has on Rivera. The
group, represented by McClain, also seeks any information
discovered by the state that would impeach Scheff's
testimony in Rivera's trial and DNA testing on the hair
DNA testing would prove conclusively if the hair follicle found
in a van that Rivera was known to use really came from
Jazvac, McClain said. At the center of the legal skirmish is
Scheff, a man who earned a reputation for cracking the
tough cases during his two-decade rise in the BSO.
Several high-profile cases involving Scheff are now being
Frank Lee Smith was sent to die in prison for the murder
of 8-year-old Shandra Whitehead after an eyewitness in the
1985 murder case testified at two appeal hearings that
Scheff had pressured her to identify Smith while never
bothering to show her a photo of Eddie Lee Mosley, accused
of rape and murder, who roamed the same northwest Fort
Lauderdale neighborhood where the young girl was raped
That testimony is now being investigated by a special
prosecutor appointed by the governor, at the request of
Broward State Attorney Michael Satz.
Smith was exonerated last year after he died of cancer in
Peter Dallas, Stephen Rosati and Peter Roussonicolos
were indicted in September 1990 and charged with the
murder of Joseph Viscido Jr. of Deerfield Beach. BSO's
homicide unit took over the 4-year-old murder case from
Deerfield Beach in 1990 and within four months they thought
they had their killers. Dallas confessed to the killing and
implicated Rosati and Roussonicolos. Scheff and lead
detective Steven Wiley interviewed an eyewitness who later
said she was harassed by the detectives into identifying
Dallas from a photo lineup.
Scheff and Wiley presented the case to the state attorney's
office, which led to the indictment of Dallas, Roussonicolos
and Rosati. The trio spent almost two years in jail.
But the case dissolved after a former Florida Department of
Law Enforcement special agent, Michael Breece, came
forward with new evidence implicating two other men in the
``I can see protecting your case and the credibility of your
case is very important, but there comes a time when you
have to say, `Hey, something's wrong here and we need to
look at it,' '' Breece said. ``But BSO didn't want to do that.''
The Broward County state attorney's office asked for a
special prosecutor to investigate the new evidence. Dallas,
Rosati and Roussonicolos were freed.
Timothy Brown and Keith King were convicted for the 1990
murder of Deputy Patrick Behan in Pembroke Park. Brown
was 14 at the time of the murder; King was 17. Attorneys for
Brown maintain their client's confession was coerced. Brown
was convicted Oct. 21, 1993, and sentenced to life in prison
without the chance of parole. King was sentenced to 15
years and was released in December 1999.
Federal public defenders for Brown have filed a petition in
Miami seeking a new trial, alleging Brown's confession was
coerced, that he waived his Miranda rights against
self-incrimination without understanding them, and that
Brown's mother was not allowed to speak with her son
during his interrogation. Scheff testified at a subsequent
court hearing that Brown's mother, Othalean Brown, did not
want to see her son during his interrogation. Othalean Brown
says she asked to see her son, but was told by Scheff that
``he had been moved elsewhere.''
Michael Rivera was sentenced to death in May 1987 for
the murder of 11-year-old Staci Jazvac. The Rivera case is
another where attorneys contend a conviction was obtained
with an implied confession and the testimony of a jailhouse
snitch. While awaiting trial for the murder of Jazvac, Rivera
was convicted and sentenced to life for the kidnapping and
attempted murder of an 11-year-old Coral Springs girl. The
11-year-old gave a poised demonstration of the attack for the
jury, pausing only when asked to identify Rivera as her
assailant -- she could not. Rivera is on Death Row pending
Richard Scheff joined the Broward Sheriff's Office in 1980 at
the age of 29. He was the oldest cadet in his class at the
South Florida Criminal Justice Department. As a young
man, Scheff owned a company that installed alarms in
homes and businesses. But he said another career kept
``When you're a kid, you want to be a police officer, a jet
pilot or an Indian chief,'' Scheff told The Herald in a 1998
``I never quite got over the desire to be a police officer.''
His personnel file is brimming with commendations,
including Deputy of the Month for his ``outstanding
performance'' in the Frank Lee Smith case and a letter
congratulating Scheff and the homicide unit on their
exceptional rate of cleared cases.
Scheff was a detective with the homicide unit from 1983 to
1985. He then was promoted to sergeant and supervised the
unit from September 1986 to January 1990. Then, promoted
again, he headed the unit until 1993. Another promotion put
Scheff in charge of the criminal investigation unit, which
oversees all major crimes, robbery, homicide, sexual
assaults, until 1997.
Sheriff's officials say they don't know enough about Scheff's
casework to determine his exact role in each investigation,
how ``hands on,'' Scheff was.
``The direct supervisor for the detectives in the homicide unit
is the sergeant and he is responsible for the day-to-day
operations and the overseeing of the detectives and their
cases,'' said Jim Leljedal, BSO spokesman, describing the
job Scheff held in general terms.
``The sergeant is aware of the cases his unit is handling and
what each of his detectives is doing in each homicide
The homicide unit now comprises eight to nine detectives
led by two sergeants. Ten to 15 years ago, when Scheff
directly oversaw the unit, the homicide squad typically had
six to eight detectives with only one sergeant, Leljedal said.
Each detective handles two to three cases at any one time.
Breece concurs that juggling several homicide investigations
simultaneously makes it difficult for detectives to devote a
great deal of time to any one case, sometimes forcing them
to act quickly.
``There is no better feeling for a law enforcement officer than
to know he did things right and got a good conviction,''
``The Peter Dallas case was one of the highlights of my
career and one of the lowest, because no one wanted to
admit they had made a mistake and ended up making it
personal by attacking me and my credibility.''
Herald staff writer Daniel de Vise contributed to this report.
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