Camile Hamilton paused to study the bearded man’s photo.
South Florida detectives had traveled to her home in Jamaica that summer of 2010, hoping to solve a murder. She was the only survivor of a 2009 Miramar home invasion that took the lives of her teenage daughter, her friend, and her friend’s teenage son.
Hamilton looked at the photo and shook her head. “No,” she said.
Then the lead detective did something extraordinary: he showed Hamilton 14 more photos, all of the same man, taken over 10 years of his life.
Now Hamilton recognized him as the killer.
The detective’s maneuver defied proper police tactics and helped lead to the arrest of Kevin Pratt, a homeless man with no connection to the women and teenagers shot in the attack.
The two critical pieces of evidence against Pratt, Hamilton’s memory and DNA found at the scene, had serious flaws. But Miramar detectives and Broward prosecutors pushed forward on the case despite credible doubts about Pratt’s guilt, a South Florida Sun Sentinel investigation of more than 13,000 pages of documents, 80 hours of testimony and dozens of interviews found.
Pratt only became a suspect after repeated tests of inconclusive DNA collected from a roll of duct tape. His arrest also hung on the hazy recollections of a traumatized witness, her memory influenced by the detective.
Police never explained a plausible motive for why Pratt would pick that particular home or why he would execute three strangers. If robbery was the motive, it was a lot of effort for little gain: roughly $80.
The Broward State Attorney’s Office clearly had concerns. As the case faltered, the lead prosecutor offered a shockingly light plea deal — 10 years in prison for the murders of a woman and two teenagers.
Facing the possibility of the death penalty, Pratt took the deal — and continued to maintain his innocence.
Miramar police and the detectives involved declined requests for an interview, and instead offered a statement:
“This case was methodically and thoroughly investigated by respected, experienced homicide detectives. Every search warrant, body warrant, arrest warrant, etc. went through the proper channels: under the direction, guidance, review, and approval of the State Attorney’s Office, as well as approved by a judge. The totality of the case led to an arrest. The defendant had an option of a jury trial; however, he chose to plead guilty on all counts. To try this closed case in the press minimizes the complexities of it and only serves to question the authenticity of the lone survivor’s account.”
A horrific crime scene
The call to police came a little before 3 p.m. on Aug. 17, 2009. Camile Hamilton sat slumped against the door of her friend’s Miramar home. A bullet had entered near her left temple and lodged in her neck.
The home belonged to Hamilton’s friend Faith Bisasor, 49, an emergency room nurse at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami. Her son Davion, 15, a bookish student at Stranahan High School in Fort Lauderdale, also lived there. Hamilton’s daughter Nekitta, 15, had been spending the night.
Officers found all three dead in the master bedroom, each shot in the head, their ankles bound with duct tape. The teenagers’ wrists were also bound. Nekitta wore pink pajama leggings and a tank top that read, “Love and Peace.”
Detectives later downplayed something unusual found in the home’s garage: A two-door Mercedes S600, armored with double-paned windows and reinforced doors, registered to Bisasor.
Though they had three bodies in the home, officers didn’t collect any evidence from the Mercedes or explore why an emergency room nurse had an apparent armored car.
“It didn’t look like it had been part of the crime,” Roberto Caceres, a Broward Sheriff’s Office crime scene detective, said in a deposition.
“It didn’t raise any flags,” testified Miramar Police Det. Steven Toyota, the lead investigator on the case.
Detectives spoke with Davion’s father, Hamilton’s husband and her brother-in-law, who also knew Bisasor. They checked out more than 50 tips, including one that said Bisasor was connected to a Jamaican gang. In the end, Toyota concluded the attack was random.
But Miramar police Major Cynthia Brown, who oversaw the homicide detectives, later testified that she was worried about how thoroughly her detectives investigated those leads.
She demanded that the detectives file reports detailing their investigative efforts.
Brown said in a deposition that she believed her decision to speak out was why she was later moved from her role supervising the detectives.
Two weeks before the attack Hamilton and her daughter had traveled from Jamaica. Hamilton was in South Florida for work. Nekitta was visiting.
On the night of Aug. 16, Hamilton had left her job caring for an elderly woman in Lake Worth to bring groceries to her daughter at Bisasor’s home.
Hamilton arrived around 11 p.m., and the teens came out to help her unload the car. It was then, Hamilton told Toyota, that a man with a gun approached them in the driveway. He demanded money and forced them inside. Bisasor was upstairs in the master bedroom, Hamilton said.
Hours later, Hamilton woke up, bloodied and disoriented. She got her cell phone and called a friend, who dialed 911 and sent officers to the home.
Hamilton was surrounded by nurses and doctors when Toyota first saw her in a hospital trauma room. He moved in close before medics rushed her away. If he didn’t get any information then, he thought, she might die and he may never get the chance to ask.
Over the next hour, Toyota spoke to her twice. She was weak, could barely talk and it was hard for the detective to understand her due to her Jamaican accent.
“Just try to speak up a little bit louder,” Toyota told her. “I know it’s hard, but we got to get through it.”
Precisely what happened inside the home remains unknown. Hamilton’s answers varied when she described the attack, according to transcripts and audio recordings of more than a dozen statements and sworn testimony she gave.
On her first day in the hospital, Hamilton told Toyota she did not look at the man. In a later conversation, she said the man didn’t have anything covering his face before then saying that he was using a t-shirt to try and cover it. During another retelling, she said the best look she got of the man was outside when he came upon her.
Her inconsistent answers were expected given the nature of the crime, the presence of a gun and the fact she was shot in the head, said Deryn Strange, a psychology professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, who reviewed Hamilton’s statements for the Sun Sentinel.
Toyota later testified that he knew Hamilton’s memory was inconsistent. But, he said, he believed she did see the man’s face during the attack.
Regarding at least one key detail, Hamilton was consistent throughout her interviews: the killer did not have a beard.
DNA testing, retesting
Detectives zeroed in on a roll of duct tape found on a desk near the bodies. Initial tests of it yielded no suspects.
Caceres, the crime scene detective, tried again. This time using a new approach, at the suggestion of George Duncan, the DNA unit manager for the Broward Sheriff’s Office crime lab.
Caceres put an adhesive remover on cotton swabs, which he then brushed on the tape. It’s a technique used by forensic labs to get fingerprints and DNA off of sticky pieces of evidence. The swabs were then sent to the crime lab.
Duncan, who has since retired, said in an interview with the Sun Sentinel that the idea to use the adhesive remover came from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives laboratory. He said he was not concerned that Caceres, and not someone at the crime lab, swabbed the tape.
“The best person to take samples is a crime scene person,” he said.
Part of the DNA collected from the duct tape was then entered into a state law enforcement database, filled with people convicted of crimes.
The upload returned a possible suspect. The result was a step forward, but not clear-cut. The evidence looked like a mixture of DNA from at least three people: which could include Hamilton and Pratt, according to a Broward crime lab report.
Duncan told Toyota the DNA result wasn’t good enough, Toyota later testified. Duncan denied saying this in his interview with the Sun Sentinel.
The next day, Toyota met with prosecutors. They told the detective he needed more to arrest Pratt.
Two weeks later, the detective was on a plane to Jamaica to see Hamilton, who had returned home since the attack.
Toyota brought along a fellow Miramar detective and friend, Hector Bertrand. Before homicides, they investigated narcotics cases together. They were named Miramar’s co-officers of the year for their work on drug crimes in 2001.
Toyota and Bertrand brought a lineup of six photos with them on their trip. One was of a driver’s license photo of Pratt taken seven months before the murders. The others were of five different black men.
George Anderson, a Jamaican contractor working for the U.S. Marshals Service, took the detectives from an airport to Hamilton’s home, outside Kingston. He was there to show Hamilton the photos because he didn’t know which one was the suspect, a Miramar police department policy meant to prevent bias.
Bertrand ran the video camera while Anderson shuffled the photos next to Hamilton.
He showed her the first one. Hamilton studied it for more than a minute. This one sort of looks like him, she said.
As Anderson showed the second photo, Toyota was in a nearby room, talking loudly with Hamilton’s husband, Eustace. He made clear what he thought about Pratt’s guilt.
“Put it this way,” the detective said. “There’s no doubt in my mind he did it.”
Hamilton stared at the second photo then glanced back at Bertrand.
“We can’t help you, Camile,” the detective said.
This one looks like him, Hamilton said.
Anderson then showed Hamilton a photo of Pratt, who had a full beard with hair going down the front of his neck.
She leaned back, then shook her head. “No,” she said.
She didn’t recognize the last three photos either.
Bertrand turned the camera off.
Toyota then improvised.
He showed Hamilton 14 photos — every one of them of Pratt. They were a collection of over a decades’ worth of driver’s license pictures. In most of the photos, Pratt had a full beard.
One caught her eye: “That’s him,” Toyota later recalled her saying.
It was a 10-year-old picture, and one of the few in which Pratt had no beard, just stubble on his face.
Hamilton remembered the murderer as having a thin mustache — which didn’t appear to match Pratt. He had a “beard/goatee” the day before and a “full beard” the week after the attack, according to police reports.
Experts in eyewitness identifications said Toyota’s actions were unacceptable on two counts: police should not repeatedly show a witness pictures of a suspect, and should never present a lineup only featuring photos of the same person.
“That second photo lineup is totally inappropriate. It can create false memories and contaminate the evidence,” said Gary Wells, a psychology professor at Iowa State University.
“Once you’ve shown the photo once, and presumably when the witness has rejected it, and you show a photo of the same person to the witness a second time, you can no longer tell if they are recognizing the face from the original event or if the face is familiar to them because they’ve been exposed to it before,” said William G. Brooks III, a Massachusetts police chief who served on a National Research Council committee that in 2014 recommended eyewitness identification procedures for law enforcement.
In testimony, Bertrand said he did not think to record Toyota showing Hamilton the 14 photos. He acknowledged that the detectives were not following department policies.
“We couldn’t use it because it wasn’t the way we’re supposed to do a lineup,” he testified.
“The very fact that it raises questions shows it shouldn’t have been done,” Brian Cavanagh, a retired former chief of the homicide trial unit with the Broward State Attorney’s Office, told the Sun Sentinel. Cavanagh said he considered Toyota a good detective. “Even if he did this in good faith, does that somehow weave its way into her memory? God only knows.”
Toyota testified that he showed the 14 photos to Hamilton because he wanted to make sure the investigation was on the right track. He said he didn’t consider what impact it could have on her memory.
Pushing for a confession
A week after detectives returned from Jamaica, and nearly a year after the murders, Toyota alerted other police agencies that Pratt was wanted for questioning. Within hours Miami-Dade police said they had him in custody, accused of harassing people for money at a gas station.
Pratt, a high school dropout, was 32 and homeless. He’d grown up in the North Miami Beach area in foster homes. He didn’t really know his parents.
He frequently had run-ins with police but they were mostly minor: often for trespassing and loitering. He was arrested twice in 2008 for exposing himself and masturbating, once in front of two women in the Georgia Tech library and another in a Starbucks in North Florida.
He’d been to Florida prisons twice, spending nearly three years there in the 1990s. The more recent crime occurred in 1998 after an officer said he hit another cop with a vehicle during a drug bust and threw a revolver out of the window as he fled, according to a police report.
Since then, he’d moved around Florida, often staying with friends and family. In January 2009 he was in Jacksonville when he was robbed and shot at an apartment complex.
Pratt struggled to keep a steady job after he was shot. He’d sometimes offer to pump gas for people or wash their windshields for tips. He tried handing out newspapers for the Homeless Voice. His debit card balance was negative $6.68 at the time of the murders.
Detectives found Pratt had two encounters with officers near Bisasor’s Miramar home, records show. Eight days before the attack, an officer stopped him for panhandling about two miles away. Roughly 24 hours before the attack, a Miami-Dade officer stopped him about five miles from the home.
Pratt agreed to speak with detectives Toyota and Bertrand without an attorney.
Nearly an hour into their conversation at a police station, Toyota got to the point: We’re here because we’re investigating a murder.
The detectives then pressed Pratt to confess, repeatedly overstating the strength of the DNA evidence.
“Steve and I are not here to discuss whether you were there or not,” Bertrand said. “We know you were there, and we know that the person that left the DNA, which is your DNA, was the person who did this.”
Pratt denied any involvement: “I didn’t murder these people. I don’t know these people.”
His best alibi was that the Jacksonville shooting had left him too weak to shoot four people. But the detectives didn’t believe it.
“There’s nothing I can do about it if you say I done something,” said Pratt, who did not agree to an interview for this story. “What can I do about it if I tell you I didn’t do it and you say I did it?”
Toyota and Bertrand couldn’t get a confession from Pratt. After three hours, Pratt said he had enough and they let him go.
A year later, detectives caught up with Pratt again.
It was September 2011 and Pratt was back in a Florida prison for a third time. He’d received a year sentence after punching a Miami-Dade officer who grabbed him during a traffic stop, according to a police report.
The detectives wanted Hamilton to have a chance to look at Pratt in person. So they brought him from a North Florida prison to the nearby Suwannee County jail, about halfway between Tallahassee and Jacksonville.
Pratt filed into the jail’s lineup room. He stood in a burnt orange uniform with the number “4” over his head. He had stubble on his face.
Hamilton walked into the darkened room with two wide windows allowing her to see the backs of the six men lined up from left to right. One by one they turned to face her. Then left. Then right. Before again facing the wall.
After seeing all the men, she asked to see Pratt and another man again, so the lineup restarted. And was repeated again.
“Do you recognize any of the six individuals as the person who you saw commit the crime?” a Suwannee sheriff’s captain asked Hamilton for a third time that day.
“Number four,” Hamilton said. Pratt.
After the lineup, Toyota and Bertrand again pushed Pratt to admit guilt. But 50 minutes into the interrogation he hadn’t. So they tried another unconventional move. This time to pressure Pratt to confess.
They allowed Hamilton into the interview room.
“You don’t remember me? I remember you,” she said to Pratt. “You don’t remember my daughter? She looked just like me.”
Hamilton begged Pratt to apologize, but for 15 minutes he never spoke. “Please tell me sorry,” she yelled, before she was escorted out of the room.
“I feel sorry for that lady,” Pratt said once Hamilton left. She seems like she’s in a lot of pain, he added.
“She is, without a doubt,” Toyota said. “You’re the cause of that pain.”
“I haven’t seen that lady before,” Pratt said.
“Extremely well done”
Hoping to get a stronger DNA test result, Miramar police paid for a private crime lab to test the roll of duct tape again. The private lab could do an additional routine DNA test that the Broward crime lab couldn’t. It focused on Y-chromosomes — those only belonging to men.
The results of the second DNA test made a stronger connection to Pratt than the first. Toyota now had enough evidence to satisfy prosecutors. The arrest was announced during a press conference, two years and two months after the murders.
Pratt, Toyota said, was the ruthless killer who attacked the mothers and their kids.
“Your tenacity, professionalism and dedication to detail were key elements in bringing this case to a successful conclusion,” Keith Dunn, then the Miramar police chief, wrote when giving Toyota and Bertrand the department’s Excellent Police Service Award.
“Congratulations on a job extremely well done.”
The strongest piece of evidence against Pratt was the new DNA test. And it was about to fall apart.
An influential forensic science working group issued new guidelines on how crime labs should interpret DNA mixtures, like that found on the duct tape. When the private crime lab analyst on the Pratt case reviewed her work under the new guidelines, she saw a problem and questioned her first analysis.
“I felt like I could not go into court and say with any level of certainty that this person was included or anyone was included given that data, given the quality of that profile,” analyst Tiffany Roy told the Sun Sentinel.
In June 2013, nearly two years after her first report, she completed a new one. The DNA on the duct tape was “inconclusive for comparison purposes,” she wrote.
Pratt did have similar DNA to the DNA found on the roll of duct tape — but Roy said she needed more advanced tools to analyze it.
Alberto Ribas, the lead prosecutor at the time, requested another review of the DNA, and it also strongly linked Pratt to the crime. But that review was conducted by a man whose methods have been challenged in other cases.
Ribas, who is now a judge, did not agree to an interview.
“I don’t know Kevin Pratt. I don’t know about his guilt or innocence,” Roy said. “But they’re are some things that happened with respect to this DNA evidence that makes me concerned.”
Toyota testified that he was convinced the DNA evidence implicated Pratt when the Broward crime lab report first named him as a possible suspect.
“At no time did I think that Kevin Pratt still wasn’t the contributor of that DNA,” he said. “The numbers just needed to be higher, the way I understood it, for the courtroom and stuff like that.”
“I didn’t do it, ma’am”
Pratt’s public defenders and a prosecutor reached a deal after Broward Judge Bernard Bober encouraged them to do so. The prosecution’s case had “some issues,” he told the attorneys.
In exchange for pleading guilty to three counts of murder and another of attempted murder, Pratt would get a 10-year sentence — more than half of which he already served in custody. Followed by 15 years of probation. Shari Tate, the prosecutor who offered the deal, did not agree to an interview.
Hamilton told the Sun Sentinel that she was unhappy about the agreement, but thinks Pratt will reoffend and go back to prison after his expected release in 2021. She said she is certain that Pratt is the man who shot her in the head and killed her daughter.
During a February 2017 hearing, Bober asked Pratt how he would plead.
He paused. Four seconds went by.
“Guilty,” he said.
Then it was Hamilton’s turn to speak. She stood in the middle of the courtroom and faced Pratt.
“Tell me you’re sorry. You can’t,” she said. “You take away everything. Nekitta was only 15. She was a little girl.”
“I didn’t do it, ma’am.”
Contact the reporter at email@example.com. Twitter @bystephenhobbs.