By Paula McMahon, Sun Sentine
9:41 PM EDT, March 14, 2013
When Anthony Caravella went to take a lie-detector test with Broward Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Tony Fantigrassi in 1983, the mentally challenged 15-year-old was considered a witness to a homicide.
Four hours later, he was a suspect. The teen had confessed, for the first time, to being involved in the crime — a key turning point in the Miramar Police Department’s investigation that eventually led to Caravella being convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
On Thursday, Fantigrassi took the witness stand to defend himself in a civil suit filed on behalf of Caravella, who was imprisoned for more than 25 years before DNA tests overturned his conviction in the rape and murder of a Miramar woman. Caravella, now 44, is seeking compensation from Fantigrassi, as well as the city of Miramar, the Sheriff’s Office, and three retired Miramar detectives.
Jurors will only hear what Fantigrassi did in the Caravella case, but over the years he was a key player in some of Broward’s most notorious wrongful conviction cases. He was also linked to a controversy over a wrongly worded Miranda rights warning form used for years in Broward. And he retired under a cloud in 2005 during the Sheriff’s Office faked crime statistics scandal.
“When the same people are involved in the same horrendous results, one cannot think it’s a coincidence,” said Broward Public Defender Howard Finkelstein when asked about Fantigrassi’s record.
“Anybody can make a mistake. When you have some of the most horrendous results in Broward County history and the same people are involved – make no mistake, it wasn’t a mistake. It wasn’t a coincidence, it was the design and the intent of the people who brought you this [the Caravella case] and other horror stories,” Finkelstein said.
Caravella’s lawyer Barbara Heyer has cast doubt on whether Fantigrassi really performed a lie-detector test on Caravella because neither a chart generated by the polygraph machine nor Fantigrassi’s detailed report of the interview have ever been produced. A summary of Fantigrassi’s conclusions was given to Heyer but Miramar police reports said Fantigrassi later changed some of his conclusions about the polygraph results to fit new information.
Fantigrassi denied he knew some important details about the case before interviewing Caravella and said that he let the teen meet with his mother during the process, and that Caravella confessed to his mother while they were alone. Heyer also said that Fantigrassi asked overly complicated questions of Caravella and jurors were told that polygraphs were not, and are still not, considered reliable enough to be used as evidence in court but were used for investigative purposes.
Jurors saw a Sheriff’s Office policy issued in 1983 that cautioned detectives about the use of polygraphs for “juveniles” or anyone with “limiting physical, mental or emotional conditions.” Fantigrassi had permission from Caravella’s mother to do the test.
Fantigrassi testified he never thought Caravella was mentally challenged: “I did not sense at all that there was a communication breakdown between him and me.”
Heyer, Fantigrassi and Gregg Toomey, the lawyer who represents Fantigrassi and the Sheriff’s Office, declined to comment to the Sun Sentinel.
Fantigrassi started his career as a jail deputy in April 1971, rose to the agency’s top brass – major – and retired after 34 years. He is living on a state pension of $11,603 per month, according to a sworn statement he gave and state retirement records.
Questions about Fantigrassi’s conduct first became public a dozen years ago when Jerry Frank Townsend, a mentally retarded man serving a life sentence for the murders of six Broward women, was exonerated by DNA. Townsend, now 61, was released in 2001 after 22 years in prison. The DNA testing linked many of those murders, and several more, to another man who avoided arrest.
In 2009, Heyer won a $2 million settlement from the Sheriff's Office for Townsend. Heyer alleged in that civil lawsuit that the Sheriff's Office and its deputies “fabricated evidence, concealed exculpatory evidence, tampered with witnesses, and coerced a false confession by intimidation and deception from [Townsend], who they knew was a mentally challenged person” in 1979. Then-deputies Fantigrassi and Mark Schlein got confessions from Townsend that were later discredited, and there was evidence Townsend was shown crime scene photos and brought to crime scenes. Fantigrassi had testified that Townsend brought them to the scenes and knew details only the killer would know.
In another Broward case in 2002, U.S. District Judge Donald Graham wrote that Fantigrassi’s theories were “implausible” and his “opinions, on occasion, [were] unsupported by evidence in the case” after Fantigrassi testified in an effort to uphold the conviction of Tim Brown. Brown served many years in prison for the 1990 murder of Deputy Patrick Behan but the judge ruled that Brown was “actually innocent” and threw out the conviction.
Fantigrassi also fought hard to defend flawed wording in a form the Sheriff’s Office used for years to warn arrestees about their rights. The form did not tell suspects they had a right to an attorney “during” questioning. A Sun Sentinel investigation in 2005 showed that dozens of cases against suspected killers, robbers and drug dealers were thrown out, dismissed or weakened because of the botched form.
Former Sheriff Ken Jenne announced the retirement of Fantigrassi and three other senior supervisors at a press conference in 2005 when he acknowledged systemic problems with how the agency cleared crimes and faked crime statistics. Jenne called all four retirees “honorable men.”
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