ST. PETERSBURG — When a police officer shot Javon Dawson in June, investigators had trouble finding any witnesses.
Now there are so many that State Attorney Bernie McCabe is considering taking the case to a grand jury to decide whether Officer Terrence Nemeth had reason to shoot Dawson, 17, outside a high school graduation party on June 7.
McCabe said Tuesday that his office has interviewed more than 30 witnesses, which is more than in most police shootings. When the investigation began, many witnesses refused to talk to authorities.
The investigation is still in progress, and when investigators feel they have talked to everyone possible, they will present their information to McCabe.
St. Petersburg police have said Dawson was shooting a gun outside the party and leveled the weapon at Nemeth as he ran away from the officer. Nemeth fired, hitting Dawson once in the shoulder and once in the lower back.
Dawson's relatives say they have heard from witnesses who said Dawson was not armed.
McCabe said he takes a police shooting to a grand jury only "if there is a factual dispute that affects the legal conclusion" of the case.
In his 16 years as state attorney, McCabe has taken only one other police shooting to a grand jury. In that case, a grand jury cleared Officer Jim Knight in the 1996 shooting death of TyRon Lewis — a case that set off racial disturbances and violence in St. Petersburg.
McCabe said he is considering the grand jury in the Dawson case "because of the sheer number of witnesses and the potential for conflict."
"But even if there is conflict, I need to analyze that to see if that conflict affects the legal conclusion," McCabe added. "And I don't want to do it piecemeal. I want to do it when I have the whole picture in front of me."
St. Petersburg lawyer Maura Kiefer, who represents Dawson's family, sent a letter to Gov. Charlie Crist in early July asking him to remove McCabe's office from the case. Kiefer believes a conflict of interest exists because Nemeth has testified in prosecutors' cases before.
Kiefer sent a second letter last week asking that the governor make a decision before McCabe's investigation is completed.
A Crist spokesman said Tuesday evening that the request is still under review.
If the request is denied, Kiefer said McCabe must take the case to the grand jury. Kiefer said she steered several witnesses into talking to McCabe's office — all of whom said Dawson was unarmed.
"My only concern is that the only information put in front of the grand jury is what Bernie McCabe says will go in front of the grand jury," Kiefer said. "That's the problem."
Charles Rose, a professor at the Stetson University College of Law, said Kiefer's concern that a prosecutor would withhold information from the grand jury probably is unfounded.
"That would be about the dumbest thing the prosecutor could do. It would be career suicide," Rose said. "And it's not like this issue is going to go away by hiding the information."
Rose also doesn't believe there is a conflict of interest just because Nemeth has testified in court before. Nearly every police officer involved in a police shooting has testified at one time or another.
"Prosecutors do not represent police officers, they represent the people," Rose said. "Prosecutors are the ones who prosecute the cops, and that tension exists."
Rose said he can see why McCabe would take the case to the grand jury.
"It's an acceptable way to handle it," he said. "Quite often when prosecutors allow the grand jury to make the decision … either they're not sure of the evidence that is available or they don't want to take the political heat when the decision is made."
Chris Tisch can be reached at (727) 892-2359 or firstname.lastname@example.org.