ST. PETERSBURG — A white police officer was justified in shooting a black Gibbs High School student outside a graduation party earlier this summer, Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe said Tuesday.
McCabe issued an eight-page report that cites physical evidence — DNA and gunshot residue — supporting police accounts that 17-year-old Javon Dawson had a gun the night he was killed.
Some black activists have compared Dawson's death to the 1996 fatal shooting of TyRon Lewis by a white police officer. Riots erupted in the city the night of that shooting and again after a grand jury cleared the officer.
But black leaders predicted calm Tuesday night and there were no reports of violence related to the case.
"There is no sense of heightened alarm," said state Rep. Darryl Rouson, whose district includes the street where Dawson died. "Since there is both eyewitness testimony as well as physical evidence that supports Dawson having a gun, I think the focus now should be why did he have a gun? Where did he get it from? And why are our children bringing guns to parties?"
But others were suspicious of McCabe's findings, especially members of the International People's Democratic Uhuru Movement.
"It was murder when it happened, it's murder now and McCabe is attempting to cover up this murder," Uhuru founder Omali Yeshitela said.
Dawson's father, David, arrived at an Uhuru news conference on Tuesday wearing a T-shirt with a picture of his son that read "jail the killer cop." He accused police and prosecutors of conspiring to cover up an unjustifiable killing.
"You know it, everybody knows it," David Dawson said. "What they are saying is bull."
Dawson's family has described the teen as kind and caring. He had no previous criminal record, and his loved ones say he was not in a gang and would not have carried a gun.
But McCabe's report paints a different picture of Dawson, who went by the nickname "Hollyhood." The report says Dawson, his 14-year-old brother and two friends were associated with the gang Third Avenue Boyz.
About 8:30 p.m. June 7, Dawson and his group got into a fight with another group. Shots were fired.
McCabe described the statements of Dawson's younger brother and three friends as "conflicting, evasive and less than forthcoming" about the initial confrontation. The report also states that the evidence "clearly establishes" that Dawson and his group were involved in the shooting.
About three blocks away from that shooting, a woman was throwing a graduation party for her son at the Masonic Shining Light Lodge at 3101 Freemont Ter. S. Though only about 50 guests were expected, it swelled to several hundred people, including members of rival high schools and neighborhood groups. Dawson and his friends were there.
The mother shut down the party about 10:45 p.m. because of crowd problems and asked the lodge proprietor to call police. As officers dispersed the crowd, a fight broke out. Officers heard shots from what sounded like multiple guns.
Officer Terrence Nemeth was approaching the Masonic building when he saw a muzzle flash from within the crowd. Nemeth, 24, had joined the department a year and a half earlier after serving in the Marine Corps. He remains on routine paid leave while the Police Department's Internal Affairs Division determines whether he followed agency procedures. That could take a month or more.
Nemeth drew his gun, took cover behind a vehicle and repeatedly yelled: "Police, drop the gun," McCabe's report states.
Nemeth reported that he saw Dawson in the crowd with a gun. Dawson pointed the gun at the crowd and at Nemeth before running away. But the teen turned back and fired at least twice at the crowd as he ran. Nemeth ran after him and told him to drop the gun, McCabe's report states.
As he ran, Dawson looked over his shoulder and raised the gun at Nemeth. The officer fired twice, the report states. Dawson kept running up a driveway, threw the gun down, tripped and fell in the yard. Paramedics were called and pronounced Dawson dead. He was shot in the upper and lower back.
Police found the gun — a Smith & Wesson .38 Special five-shot revolver — in the driveway. The gun had three spent casings. An analysis of DNA on the gun found a mixture that was consistent with Dawson's DNA. Nemeth's DNA was not found on the gun.
A private laboratory found that "Dawson's DNA profile was consistent with being the major contributor to the DNA mixture" on the gun, the report states. The chance of this DNA belonging to another African-American is about one in 30,000. Investigators also found evidence of gunshot residue on the pocket area of Dawson's shorts.
McCabe notes in his report that hundreds of people were there that night, but no witnesses other than Nemeth have been found who can give a complete account of what happened.
McCabe notes that some witnesses resisted interview requests. Other witnesses didn't want to talk to the St. Petersburg police and came directly to the State Attorney's Office. McCabe described their testimony as "largely uneventful, resulting in partial information, as well as misinformation."
At least two of those witnesses — Raynard Yates and Allen Hixon — appeared at interviews with lawyer Maura Kiefer, who represents Dawson's family. Yates is one of the people McCabe said was with Dawson that night.
Yates acknowledged the earlier confrontation and said shots were fired, but not by him or Dawson. But other witnesses reported that both Yates and Dawson showed off guns at the party that night. One witness reported seeing Dawson with the gun in the pocket of his shorts, while the other reported seeing Dawson fire the gun outside the lodge.
Though no witnesses saw Dawson get shot or saw him carrying a gun when he was shot, several reported hearing an officer yell at him to drop his gun or get on the ground.
McCabe said last week that he would consider taking the case to a grand jury, but ultimately decided that the facts were clear enough that he could make the call himself.
That decision disappointed Kiefer. She had asked McCabe to step aside and let Gov. Charlie Crist appoint a special prosecutor.
"Mr. McCabe chose to highlight the testimony of only those individuals who supported his personal opinions," Kiefer said.
Uhuru leaders and Dawson's family said they are planning a trip to Tallahassee today to present Crist with 3,000 signatures supporting an independent investigation.
Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch said broader social issues also need to be addressed.
"We have a crisis in the black community in terms of the level of violence and violent death. And when you combine that with our failure to educate African-American men especially, it is a recipe for disaster. And we've got to come to grips with it."
Times staff writers Stephanie Garry, Nicole Hutcheson, Curtis Krueger and Mariana Minaya contributed to this report.
Reactions to the decision
"Officer Nemeth had reason to believe that Javon Dawson, in his use of the firearm, posed a threat of death or serious physical harm to himself and to others present in the area."
Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe
"You know they weren't going to find the police guilty of nothing. It's always the black man that is guilty."
DeAndre Brown, 27, as she stood outside the SweetBay on 22nd Street in Midtown.
"We shall not rest until justice has been brought to this community. They cannot simply murder people without any consequences."
Omali Yeshitela, leader of the International People's Democratic Uhuru Movement
"This has been a difficult situation for all involved. I appreciate the patience and understanding our broader community has demonstrated thus far during the investigation and asked for their continued understanding while we conclude our internal investigation."
St. Petersburg police Chief Chuck Harmon
"Nobody said they saw him (Dawson) level a gun at Officer Nemeth and that's why it should have gone to the grand jury. I think that was an abuse of his (McCabe's) discretion. He's supposed to distill confidence in the community and that was not done."
Maura Kiefer, Dawson family's lawyer