1980 Miami riots

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1980 Miami riots
Part of Race riots in Miami
DateMay 17 – May 20, 1980
Caused byofficers acquitted of death of Arthur McDuffie
Methodsriots, looting, arson, sniper, murder
Parties to the civil conflict
Lead figures
Governor Bob Graham Mayor Maurice Ferré

The 1980 Miami riots were race riots that occurred in Miami, Florida, starting in earnest on May 18, 1980,[1] following the acquittal of four Dade County Public Safety Department officers in the death of Arthur McDuffie (December 3, 1946 – December 21, 1979). McDuffie, a black salesman and former Marine, died from injuries sustained at the hands of four officers trying to arrest him after a high-speed chase. The officers were tried and acquitted for manslaughter and evidence tampering, among other charges. Subsequently, a riot broke out in the black neighborhoods of Overtown and Liberty City in Miami. In 1981 Dade County paid McDuffie's family a settlement of $1.1 million after they filed a civil lawsuit against the officials. The 1980 Miami riots were the deadliest since the 1960s and remained such until the 1992 Los Angeles riots twelve years later.


In the early morning hours of December 17, 1979, police officers pursued thirty-three-year-old McDuffie, who was riding a black-and-orange 1973 Kawasaki motorcycle. McDuffie had accumulated traffic citations and was riding with a suspended license. He led police on an eight-minute high-speed chase through residential streets at speeds of over 80 miles per hour (130 km/h).

The officers involved in the chase, Ira Diggs, William Hanlon, Michael Watts, and Alex Marrero, later filed a report claiming McDuffie had run a red light and led police on an eight-minute chase. They said that after McDuffie had lost control of his motorcycle while making a left turn, he attempted to flee on foot. The officers caught him and a scuffle ensued in which McDuffie allegedly kicked Officer Diggs. By the end of the struggle, the officers had, in the words of the prosecutor at the trial, cracked McDuffie's skull "like an egg."

McDuffie was transported to a nearby hospital where he died four days later of his injuries. The coroner's report concluded that he had suffered multiple skull fractures.

Police deliberately ran over the motorcycle with a patrol car in order to break its gauges and make it seem that McDuffie crashed. The medical examiner, Dr. Ronald Wright, said McDuffie's injuries were not consistent with a motorcycle crash, and that if McDuffie had fallen off the motorcycle as the police said, it did not make sense that both gauges would be broken. Wright said that it seemed that he had been beaten to death.[2]:194


Six officers were indicted for manslaughter, as well as tampering with or fabricating physical evidence. A seventh was charged with tampering with evidence.[2]:194 Acting director of the Dade County Public Safety Department, Bobby Jones, suspended the officers on December 27. He said that since 1973, the four had been cited in 47 citizen complaints and 13 internal affairs probes. Two other officers, Herbert Evans, Jr. and Ubaldo Del Toro, were charged with being accessories to the crime, as well as fabricating evidence. The six officers were fired less than a month later.

Because of the volatile atmosphere in Miami, which presiding judge Lenore Carrero Nesbitt had termed a "time bomb," the trial was shifted to Tampa. Jury selection began on March 31, 1980. The trial was heard by an all-male, all-white jury. The lead prosecutor of the case was Janet Reno, later U.S. Attorney General during the Clinton presidency.

The defense said that the police were under attack. Officer Charles Veverka, who received immunity in exchange for his testimony, disputed this. Veverka said that officers hit McDuffie 10-12 times with clubs and fists until he was motionless. They attempted to cover up the attack by using a police car to run over the motorcycle and claim that McDuffie's injuries were the result of a fatal accident.

Hanlon, who had also received immunity, testified that he had choked McDuffie to the ground with his nightstick before Marrero began striking the man. He said that Marrero struck McDuffie with a flashlight. Hanlon, the only defendant to take the stand, said that he was the officer who had driven over McDuffie's motorcycle.[citation needed]

The three men who gave sworn statements were Veverka, Hanlon, and Meier.[2]:196 After the testimony, Marerro was given a new charge of second-degree murder. Hanlon was charged with felonies, while Veverka was charged with a civil rights violation, but was acquitted.

On April 25, officer Mark Meier was given immunity. He testified that the high-speed chase had slowed to 25 miles per hour when McDuffie shouted, "I give up." Meier said that between three and eight officers surrounded McDuffie, pulled off his helmet and proceeded to beat him with nightsticks. He said that the officer struck him at least twice. Because the murder weapon was not identified (because of inconsistent witness testimonies), the jury determined that there was sufficient reasonable doubt to acquit the defendant.

On May 8, Del Toro was acquitted. Judge Nesbitt said that the state had failed to prove its case. Nine days later, a jury acquitted the remaining officers on all counts of the indictment after less than three hours of deliberation.


The verdict resulted in protests in the Miami streets; approximately 5,000 people attended a protest at the Downtown Miami Metro Justice Building. By 6:00 p.m., the protest had turned into a riot; three people were killed and at least 23 injured, with several of those in critical condition.

Florida governor Bob Graham ordered 500 National Guard troops into the area; despite his doubling their number the next day, the riot continued. Twelve more people were killed and 165 were injured as violence spread to the Black Grove, Overtown, Liberty City, and Brownsville sections of the city. In addition, fires, burglaries, and looting increased, with police reluctant to enter some areas for fear of sniper fire.

In the end, 18 men and women died, while 350 people, some of them children, were hurt and 600 were arrested. Property destruction exceeded $100 million.[3]

By the third day, the violence declined as the city imposed an 8:00 p.m.-6:00 a.m. curfew, coupled with a temporary ban on the sale of firearms and liquor. Graham sent in an additional 2,500 National Guardsmen to the 1,000 already in the city.

Local police barricaded parts of Coconut Grove to warn motorists away from the area, as drivers had reported having rocks thrown at them. The city came to a standstill. Reports of sniper fire at freeway drivers also stopped traffic until the military could restore order.


On May 22, former defendant Michael Watts was rushed to the hospital after attempting to commit suicide by breathing carbon monoxide. The police said that his attempt was related to a romantic breakup and not his trial.

The federal government declared Miami a disaster area, and authorized the release of funds to allow the city to rebuild. The Miami Fraternal Order of Police had threatened a walkout unless the officers were reinstated. The following day, the five officers who had been acquitted were reinstated in their jobs.

Days after the verdict, the U.S. Justice Department said it would seek indictments of the policemen for federal civil rights violations. On July 28, 1980, a federal grand jury indicted Charles Veverka, despite his having received immunity from the original charges filed by the state during the first trial.

The federal trial was held in San Antonio, Texas, after Atlanta and New Orleans asked that it be moved from their venues due to its controversial racial aspects. Journalists referred to the case as "The Trial That Nobody Wants."[citation needed] On December 17, Veverka was acquitted in the week-long trial after the jury deliberated for more than 16 hours. Minor incidents of violence were reported in Miami after the verdict was announced. Veverka's attorney, Denis Dean predicted that no further indictments would be forthcoming from the case and none were issued.

On November 17, 1981, Dade County commissioners agreed to a $1.1 million settlement with McDuffie's family in exchange for their dropping a $25 million civil lawsuit against the county. Of that amount, the family's legal team received $483,833, while McDuffie's two children each received $202,500, and his mother, $67,500.[citation needed]

On April 20, 2006 Mr. Hanlon, who had trained as a lawyer, was permanently denied admittance to the bar by Florida's state Supreme Court.[4]

See also


  1. ^ Huffington Postt, McDuffie Riots: Eerie Scene From Miami Race Riot Of 1980, 05/29/2013.
  2. ^ a b c Dunn, Marvin (2016). A History of Florida Through Black Eyes. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform. ISBN 1519372671.
  3. ^ "The Corpse Had a Familiar Face," by Edna Buchanan, 1987, Random House
  4. ^ Tampa Bay Times, Whatever happened to redemption? By TAMARA LUSH, May 21, 2006.

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