JUDGE RELEASES 3 MEN CHARGED IN KILLING
DNA COUNTERS WITNESS
BYLINE: SUSAN SPENCER-WENDEL, Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
DATE: May 20, 2006
PUBLICATION: Palm Beach Post, The (FL)
Three men facing life in prison for murder may soon shed that yoke after DNA evidence discounted a witness account that helped pin them to the crime.
Friday morning, a judge agreed to release Cleveland Cooley, Latavion Cooley and Larry Turner on their own recognizance after a prosecutor told a judge he could not prove the case against them. Kirk Volker said he would talk with State Attorney Barry Krischer next week about dropping the first-degree murder charges against the Cooleys and Turner. Police charged the trio with first-degree murder about two weeks after the drive-by shooting Dec. 28 of Carlos "Skeet" Cesar of West Palm Beach on a corner of Tamarind Avenue. A gunman opened fire with an assault rifle in broad daylight, killing 23-year-old Cesar. One defense attorney, Peter Grable, described the charges as too quick with dubious evidence. "With violence across the streets, there was a rush to arrest someone," Grable said Friday. His client, Latavion Cooley, 24, of Riviera Beach had claimed an alibi: that he was visiting a relative at the hospital who had been shot that same day, not out shooting people himself. An eyewitness, though, told police she saw the Cooleys and Turner in the car used in the drive-by shooting. And another state witness, a man, claimed clothing in the suspected car belonged to Latavion Cooley and was worn during the commission of the crime, Grable said. DNA told a different story, defense attorneys said: that none of the three men had been in the car and the clothing had not been worn by Latavion Cooley but the witness himself. That, coupled with witnesses changing stories and sinking their credibility, tanked the case. Grable also said two witnesses who gave depositions said they were pressured by police to implicate the Cooleys or face charges themselves. Another defense attorney on the men's case, David Pleasanton, said he believes police did not know who did it and put pressure on people to find out. "I don't know if you can say it's inappropriate," Pleasanton said. "But I don't think that it's actually a search for the truth." Prosecutor Volker told the judge he could not prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt. He did not, though, declare the men innocent. Without the charges, it will be like starting from scratch again to solve Cesar's shooting, Volker said. A fight at Club TKO on Okeechobee Boulevard days before took place between Cesar, his friends and Riviera Beach men, including the Cooleys. A Cooley brother lost a gold necklace and two bracelets in the fight and later tried unsuccessfully to claim them from Cesar, according to a police record. Drive-by shootings are extremely difficult to prove in court because of the lack of cooperating witnesses. Those who might testify for prosecutors and defense often fear retaliation. A private investigator who worked on Latavion Cooley's case said he had some alibi witnesses, including relatives, too fearful to testify. Mark Murnan calls it a tension between the culture of crime and the culture of courage on the street. Lt. Pat Maney, head of the police department's violent crimes unit, said they will continue to work on the case. Police are disappointed with the development because they believe the Cooleys to be guilty, he said, and had good reason to arrest them beyond public clamor. "We don't compromise our professionalism or compromise our investigation practices to make a case because someone thinks we should," Maney said.