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Gov. Crist orders review of report clearing officer who shot teen

Bernie McCabe says  it’s a first for one of his cases.

Bernie McCabe says it’s a first for one of his cases.

ST. PETERSBURG — Gov. Charlie Crist has ordered a review of a state prosecutor's investigation clearing a police officer in the shooting death of a teenager.

Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe on Wednesday defended the thoroughness of his investigation and questioned the governor's decision.

No governor has ever made such a request involving one of his cases, McCabe said, "and I don't know why it's being done now."

The report cites witness testimony and physical evidence — DNA and gunshot residue — in concluding that Officer Terrence Nemeth was justified in shooting 17-year-old Javon Dawson after the teen pointed a gun at him outside a rowdy graduation party earlier this summer.

"It all adds up," said McCabe. "If you don't think that's compelling, I'm sorry."

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.

Hours after McCabe released his report Tuesday, Crist sent a letter to Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Gerald Bailey.

"So that we can be absolutely certain with these findings and conclusions," Crist wrote, "I request the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to review State Attorney McCabe's findings and case file to ensure that a complete and thorough investigation was conducted and no additional action is necessary."

Crist "believes it is prudent to have an additional, independent review," said spokesman Sterling Ivy.

About 30 members of the International People's Democratic Uhuru Movement rallied Wednesday morning in Tallahassee. Leaders of the group also met with Crist's chief of staff to discuss the investigation.

Nemeth was the only witness who could give a complete account of what happened when Dawson was shot, McCabe wrote in his report. While hundreds of people were nearby, none stepped forward with an eyewitness account of the shooting, he said.

But police found a gun — a Smith & Wesson .38 Special five-shot revolver — on the ground near Dawson's body. The gun had three spent shell casings.

The report details McCabe's efforts to cull physical evidence from the crime scene.

An FDLE analysis of swabs from the firearm revealed more than one person touched the gun. Nemeth's DNA was not found on the gun, but Dawson's was. The chance of this DNA belonging to another African-American other than Dawson is about 1 in 7,000, the analysis found.

McCabe then requested a private laboratory conduct an analysis of the sample. Using additional testing unavailable at the FDLE, the analysis found that "Dawson's DNA profile was consistent with being the major contributor to the DNA mixture" on the gun, the report states. The chances that the DNA belonged to an African-American other than Dawson are about one in 30,000, the report said.

Forensic experts said the physical evidence was compelling, though not foolproof.

"One in many trillions is considered a good match, so the numbers aren't strong," said David Foran, director of the forensic science program at Michigan State University. "On the other hand, you have to think, what are the chances it was someone else when the odds are one in 30,000? Did more than 30,000 people handle that gun? Probably not."

But Debra Figarelli, a DNA technical leader at the National Forensic Science Technology Center in Largo, said the physical evidence only suggests Dawson had a gun, not that he fired it.

"Unless they found spent casings at the crime scene that they would be able to trace back to the 17-year-old's weapon, it doesn't sound like that is a whole lot of information," she said.

Investigators did not recover bullets, but they did find evidence of gunshot residue around a pocket of Dawson's shorts, McCabe's report said.

St. Petersburg police did not collect samples from Dawson's hands to test for gunshot residue according to standard protocol. The FDLE discourages gunshot residue testing because it is so unreliable. "Anybody in the vicinity could test positive for gunshot residue because it goes all over the place," said Figarelli.

McCabe had officials test for gunshot residue on Dawson's clothes and the protective bags placed on his hands when his body was taken to the medical examiner's office.

McCabe also determined that Dawson, his 14-year-old brother, Keon, and two friends were part of a gang called the Third Avenue Boyz.

Dawson, whose nickname was Hollyhood, didn't have a criminal record, and Gibbs High School officials have said he was a good student. But public records show Keon was arrested by the Pinellas sheriff's deputies for grand theft and fleeing a police officer weeks after his brother's death.

Another member of the gang, Raynard Yates, 16, was arrested five times on charges including cocaine possession and for improperly carrying a firearm.

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or csilva@sptimes.com.

Gov. Crist orders review of report clearing officer who shot teen 08/13/08 [Last modified: Sunday, August 17, 2008 7:23pm]

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