ST. PETERSBURG — A handful of witnesses to the death of Javon Dawson have finally stepped forward, but law enforcement officials say they still are struggling to figure out what happened on the night the 17-year-old was fatally shot by a young police officer.
After some legal prodding, family members put the State Attorney's Office in touch with at least seven witnesses last week, including Javon's 14-year-old brother, Keon, who was with Javon the night he died.
Javon was shot twice in the back during a June 7 graduation party after police say he aimed a gun at an officer and refused to lower his weapon. Friends dispute that account.
"In a nutshell, they said they did not see a gun," said Bruce Bartlett, chief assistant to Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe.
But some witness statements were inconsistent, Bartlett said.
Law enforcement officials are trying to talk to as many people as possible in an investigation with no immediate end in sight.
And the ongoing uncertainty surrounding the case has only further complicated tensions between law enforcement officials and the Dawson family, which insists Javon was unarmed.
Investigators are concerned that the family has provided access only to witnesses who will portray Javon in a favorable light, Bartlett said.
"If you are a witness, why would you not come forward and offer your testimony? Why would they have to be coaxed in here to do that?" said Bartlett. "They have made it difficult for us to gather the evidence."
But the Dawson family attorney says investigators should be more sensitive.
"You have to understand these kids were right next to Javon; they were shot at as well," said attorney Maura Kiefer. "They are all afraid."
On June 13, the State Attorney's Office served a witness subpoena requiring Keon to speak with authorities, according to court documents. The family failed to comply.
Kiefer said she wasn't aware of the subpoena until it was too late, and added that the family had been trying unsuccessfully to meet voluntarily with law enforcement officials for days.
The Dawson family and other witnesses met with investigators last week, Bartlett said.
But that meeting did little to ease the family's concerns.
On Tuesday, Kiefer appeared in a Clearwater courtroom to request that McCabe's office be removed from the investigation.
"The motion is not a reflection of the credibility or qualification or integrity of Mr. McCabe's office at all," Kiefer said after the hearing, which was moved to July 10 because of a scheduling conflict.
Rather, the family is concerned because the 24-year-old officer who shot Javon, Terrence Nemeth, also has been a state witness on numerous occasions.
"Officer Nemeth is quite frankly a potential criminal suspect," Kiefer said. "There is clearly a conflict of interest."
Bartlett called Kiefer's request absolutely ludicrous.
"We are an independent investigative authority," he said. "If we were to recuse ourselves every time a situation like this arose, then what the hell good would we be?"
Kiefer also demanded investigators release forensic evidence such as gunshot residue findings that could potentially corroborate or dispel witness accounts.
"What are they hiding?" she said.
But that's not going to happen until the investigation is over, Bartlett said.
"You don't know specifically how each piece of evidence plays a role in your investigation until you have completed your investigation," he said.
Cristina Silva can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8846.