A Florida sheriff's deputy seeking dismissal of a manslaughter charge testified Thursday that he feared for his life as well as those of other officers and bystanders in a crowded summertime pool area before he fatally shot a man carrying what turned out to be an air rifle.
Suspended Deputy Peter Peraza of the Broward Sheriff's Office testified that Jermaine McBean initially refused commands from him and other deputies to drop the weapon, then turned and pointed the authentic-looking camouflage gun toward the deputies in July 2014. Peraza fired three shots, killing him.
"I've never been so scared in my life," Peraza said in his first public comments since he was charged last fall. "He's going to kill me. He's going to kill somebody."
Peraza, 37, seeks pretrial dismissal of the charge under Florida's "Stand Your Ground" self-defense law. If Circuit Judge Michael Usan finds in Peraza's favor, the charge will be dropped and there will be no trial. If convicted by a jury, Peraza faces up to 30 years in prison.
Amid national debate over police tactics involving minorities, McBean was black, Peraza is a white Hispanic, Peraza was the first Florida law enforcement officer in three decades charged with a crime for an on-duty shooting. On June 1, fired Palm Beach Gardens officer Nouman Raja was charged with manslaughter and attempted first-degree murder for killing stranded motorist Corey Jones, who was black, while he waited for a tow truck. Raja, of South Asian descent, has pleaded not guilty.
On the witness stand, Peraza said a police dispatcher described how 911 callers were reporting a man carrying a rifle, some said it could have been a .22-caliber weapon or a shotgun, down a busy street in broad daylight. In previous hearings, McBean has been described as being bipolar and recently recovering from a serious mental episode. He had just purchased the air rifle at a nearby pawn shop.
Peraza and the other deputies had no way of knowing that. Peraza testified that McBean at first was carrying the camouflage-designed rifle like a cane, and then put it across his shoulders behind his neck in a common military style as he approached his apartment complex, where families with children crowded the pool area. Suddenly, he said, McBean turned and pointed the gun at the officers.
"Completely defenseless, you have all these women and children in the pool area trying to enjoy their day," Peraza testified. "I don't know if my heart can race any faster and my fear level can go any higher."
Peraza also testified he did not see earbuds in 33-year-old McBean's ears before the shooting. McBean's family says he likely did not hear police commands because he was listening to music.
"At the time I did not see anything in his ears," he said.
The hearing is scheduled to continue next week, with prosecutors likely to put witnesses on the stand that contradict testimony from the deputies about McBean's actions. Usan has indicated he may rule by next Friday.
Earlier Thursday, retired forensic pathologist Dr. Vincent Di Maio testified that the air rifle McBean was carrying is potentially lethal itself even though it is far less powerful than a real firearm.
"I've seen people killed with a gun like that," he said. "It's a weapon. It's sold by some as a toy, but it's not."