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Veteran Miami prosecutor quits after judge’s rebuke over conjugal visits for jailhouse informants

Mar 8, 2024, 4:48 PM

MIAMI, Florida (AP) — A veteran prosecutor in Miami has resigned after a judge found that state investigators manipulated witnesses, including possibly providing conjugal visits to jailhouse informants in exchange for their testimony, in a high-profile death penalty case against a notorious gang leader.

During his career Michael Von Zamft has led some of the biggest murder, conspiracy and racketeering cases in the Florida state attorney’s office in Miami and at times served as a trainer and supervisor to younger prosecutors.

He resigned this week following a stunning rebuke by the judge, who disqualified him and another prosecutor, Stephen Mitchell, from the resentencing trial of gang leader and convicted murderer Corey Smith.

Judge Andrea Ricker Wolfson said she found evidence of “witness testimony manipulation” and “severe recklessness” by prosecutors stretching back to the case’s origins 24 years ago and continuing to the present.

“The allegations in this claim are like a rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland,” the judge wrote in her 15-page order. “The prosecutors in this case have lost sight of their responsibility, and justice demands their disqualification.”

State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle said Friday that she accepted the resignation of Von Zamft, her colleague of almost 30 years, and reaffirmed her commitment that all prosecutors seek “truth and justice” lawfully and with “honesty, integrity and professionalism.”

Her office did not respond to questions by The Associated Press about whether she had initiated any discipline actions against the prosecution team behind the case or filed a complaint to the Florida Bar.

“I will ask my top litigators to examine every aspect of this case and determine the best path forward,” Rundle said in a statement, in which she also defended the decision to seek the death penalty for Smith. “We are also the voice of the murder victims who cannot speak for themselves.”

Von Zamft declined to comment.

Among the irregularities the judge found was testimony from inmates who said they were granted favors including conjugal visits when they were brought to the Miami Police Department’s Homicide Unit to coordinate their testimony against Smith as state witnesses.

But the most damaging allegations against Von Zamft came from recordings of his conversations with an inmate in which, in anticipation of the resentencing trial, he discussed arranging jailhouse meetings among several witnesses so they can coordinate their testimony — something Smith’s lawyers were never told, as is required in criminal prosecutions.

In a 2022 phone call, Von Zamft also discussed sidelining another witness whose version of events had shifted over the years, saying that if she didn’t testify as he wanted, “I will find a way to make her unavailable” and read her previous testimony into the record.

“On television, Perry Mason, defense attorney extraordinaire, always managed to find the smoking gun at the end of every episode,” the judge wrote of that exchange. “In real life, this happens very rarely. It happened here.”

David Oscar Markus, a Miami defense attorney who has successfully litigated misconduct allegations against federal prosecutors, said the admonishment of the prosecutors is as brave as it is rare.

“Sadly this is not some isolated incident,” Markus said. “If a defense lawyer had come close to this conduct, he would be in handcuffs and charged with obstruction. But little is done to prosecutors who cross the line.”

Smith was an alleged leader of what’s known as the John Doe Gang, a drug organization that sold marijuana and crack cocaine in a poor, predominantly Black neighborhood of Miami in the late 1990s.

His conviction in 2004 in the killing of four individuals was touted at the time as a major victory against gangs and was the culmination of years of federal and state investigations.

Another prosecutor who worked on that case, Bronwyn Miller, was appointed as a judge on the Miami-Dade County Court. She now sits on the Third District Court of Appeal in Florida.

Smith was sentenced to death for two of the killings on the recommendation of a majority of jury members, but in 2017 state law changed to require a unanimous vote in capital punishment cases. As a result the death sentence was vacated.

Despite her admonishment of the prosecutors, Wolfson rejected Smith’s argument that there is a broader culture of misconduct that should bar Rundle’s office from pressing forward on the case.

“We cannot help but remain concerned that given the tenure of these attorneys, the issues raised were not unique to them or this case,” Craig Whisenhurst and Allison Miller, attorneys for Smith, said in a statement.

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Veteran Miami prosecutor quits after judge’s rebuke over conjugal visits for jailhouse informants