A Hard New Look at the 1980 McDuffie Cop Case

Just in time for the 40th anniversary of the notorious 1980 McDuffie riots comes a new book to explain what happened – “Verdict on Trial: The Inside Story of the Cops Trial that Ignited Miami’s deadliest riot.”

Written by veteran Miami journalist John Dorschner, the book takes a new, hard look at what went wrong in one of America’s most devastating trials, revealing for the first time many details about problems in a case that the public assumed was certain to lead to convictions.

The book is available in a trade paperback and in an electronic Kindle edition at https://www.amazon.com/dp/B087SG6ZSC

The “McDuffie cops case,” as it was often called, involved five white Miami police officers accused of killing black motorcyclist Arthur McDuffie or attempting to cover up the way he died. On May 17, 1980, the cops were acquitted of all charges. Black neighborhoods erupted. Eighteen were killed. Property damage was $100 million.

What happened in that courtroom? This book offers not only new revelations about one of the most important trials in 20th Century America – but also a fresh perspective on the complexities of high-publicity, high-pressure cases down to the present day, especially those involving police officers charged with killing unarmed civilians.

In many of these high-profile cases, the media – and the public — often focuses on the accusations without fully comprehending the maneuvering that defense attorneys do in the courtroom to sway jurors.


So it was in the McDuffie case. The verdicts astonished almost everyone in Miami: “Simply numbing, impossible to comprehend,” moaned one editorial writer.

In fact, for those lawyers in the courtroom – prosecutors and defense – the verdicts were easy to comprehend. The state’s case was a mess.


That’s the underlying theme of this book – released on the 40th anniversary of the verdicts and riots. Truth is, the state’s first four witnesses contradicted each other in profound ways. All of them were cops, testifying against other cops. The prosecutor admitted long after the trial was over: “Boy, they were terrible witnesses.”


Even the lead homicide detective in the case confessed years later he wasn’t surprised at the verdicts: “Had I been on that jury, I might have had those same doubts.”

These opinions don’t diminish the underlying evidence that showed clearly that Arthur McDuffie was murdered. The autopsy concluded that the blows on his skull by a nightstick or heavy police flashlight must have been administered when he was lying on the ground or propped against a wall. His hands showed no defensive wounds: He wasn’t resisting. “Murder,” said the coroner. Still, as one defense attorney put it, “the question is who did what?”


In the 40 years since, the acquittals have often been blamed on “an all-white jury,” as if that were sufficient explanation. Of course, there are many different kinds of whites, and this book will describe how one of the prosecution’s mistakes was selecting “law-and-order” men who tended naturally to sympathize with the cops on trial.

Throughout the book is a running commentary on the day-by-day court proceedings by James B. Lees, a nationally renowned trial attorney. He’s an ex-cop, ex-prosecutor who has tried over 400 cases. After the profound contradictions of just the first two state witnesses, he remarked: “At that point who — white, black, or green — would give any credence to this type of testimony and evidence?”

John Dorschner can be contacted at [email protected].