ST. PETERSBURG — The local NAACP wants the Department of Justice to review the fatal shooting of a black teenager by a white police officer earlier this summer.
"If you are black and you grew up in most towns in the United States, this kind of thing happens all the time, and the question always is: Was the shooting justified?" said Norm Brown, president of the St. Petersburg NAACP. "All we want is someone outside, not in the local law enforcement loop, to review what was done and see if they come to the same conclusion."
Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe cleared Officer Terrence Nemeth on Tuesday, concluding in an eight-page report that he was justified in fatally shooting 17-year-old Javon Dawson. McCabe cited witness testimony and physical evidence — DNA and gunshot residue — to conclude that Nemeth, 24, feared for his life when Dawson pointed a gun at him as he turned to flee a raucous graduation party June 7.
The NAACP plans to make a formal request to the Justice Department, Brown said. The NAACP is not questioning McCabe's investigation, however. "We pretty much agree with the state attorney's report," Brown said.
Hours after McCabe issued his report, Gov. Charlie Crist ordered the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to review the investigation. Dawson's family asked Crist to replace McCabe with a special prosecutor.
"It was a sensitive case, and I think it's important to always take a second look," Crist said Thursday. "I think the state attorney did a great job, but I want to make sure."
Crist's order surprised some community leaders, who were satisfied with McCabe's report.
If the FDLE review confirms McCabe's conclusions, Crist "can say to the rest of the black community, many who fundamentally disagree with the Uhurus, that it is time to move forward and win their support," said Darryl Paulson, a political science professor at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.
The International People's Democratic Uhuru Movement has protested, saying the shooting was not justified.
"It is certainly a tricky situation,'' Paulson added. "You are going to irritate some people."
Tampabay.com readers criticized Crist in anonymous comments in stinging terms.
Local political leaders were more forgiving.
Mayor Rick Baker said while he respects Crist's decision, McCabe's report "appears pretty thorough."
City Council Chairman Jamie Bennett said he was confident that "the truth is out."
"I don't think that the circumstances warrant further investigation," he said. "I don't get the sense that the community is out there pushing for it."
State Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, said some law enforcement officials and community leaders hoped McCabe's report would end the controversy over Dawson's death. Still, he said, Crist's order is "completely appropriate."
"The governor is truly a sensitive person and wants to serve the best interest of the people," Rouson said. "It shows that he is a man concerned with seeking justice."
McCabe could not be reached for comment Thursday but expressed some aggravation Wednesday with Crist's order.
The state review will determine whether McCabe pursued all possible avenues of information, said Kristen Perezluha, an FDLE spokeswoman.
"It's a second look at what the state attorney found," she said. "We are going to make sure that it was thorough, that everyone that needed to be interviewed was interviewed, that they didn't miss anything, that everything was done accordingly."
But FDLE officials will not launch a new investigation into Dawson's death. "We are not starting from scratch," Perezluha said. The FDLE conducted tests that linked Dawson's DNA to a gun found near his body. A private lab confirmed those results.
The governor ordered the review after an attorney for the Dawson family urged Crist to replace McCabe with a special prosecutor because of his close working relationship with the St. Petersburg Police Department.
About 30 members of the International People's Democratic Uhuru Movement rallied Wednesday morning in Tallahassee. Three leaders of the group and Dawson's stepmother met with Crist's chief of staff, Eric Eikenberg. The Uhurus also submitted a petition with 5,000 names calling for Nemeth's arrest on murder charges. Eikenberg said it was not a prearranged but since they showed up and were talking about a serious issue he agreed to meet with them.
"We sat down and we had a good discussion," Eikenberg said.
Diop Olugbala, who heads the Uhurus' Justice for Javon Dawson Committee, called Crist's order "a step in the right direction."
Nemeth remains on routine paid leave while the Police Department's internal affairs division investigates. Police Chief Chuck Harmon wants a report within 45 days, said internal affairs commander J.R. Thompson.
Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or firstname.lastname@example.org.