Things The Law Doesn’t Do Well

At ReasonRadley Balko writes about the settlement in the case of Sal Culosi, a 38 year old optometrist in Fairfax County, Virginia, who was gunned down by Detective Deval Bullock as a SWAT team came down on him for the violent crime of sports betting. 

The SWAT team came to Culosi’s house because another Fairfax County detective, David Baucum, overheard him and some friends wagering on a college football game at a bar.

After overhearing the wagering, Baucum befriended Culosi. During the next several months he talked Culosi into raising the stakes of what Culosi thought were friendly wagers. Eventually Culosi and Baucum bet more than $2,000 in a single day, enough under Virginia law for police to charge Culosi with running a gambling operation. That’s when they brought in the SWAT team.

One can never be too careful when going after a sports better, given their propensity toward violence sports betting. But it wasn’t the absurdity of using extreme means, heavily armed cops in body armor with tactical weaponry, to take down this mean hombre, that gave rise to Balko’s post.  It was the settlement of the case for his needless killing.

On the eve of trial against the shooter, the county and the police chief having been tossed, the case settled for $2 million.  Not a terrible settlement, all things considered.  But that wasn’t the problem for the family, given that Bullock, the man show shot and killed Culosi, would have this paid for by the taxpayers, was never prosecuted and suffered a three week unpaid vacation for the killing.  The problem was that there was no admission of wrongdoing.

In a heartbreaking entry on a website she set up for her son, Anita Culosi addressed him directly last week:

I’ll beg your forgiveness Son…because I am not able…to go the distance. They call it…settlement. I call it something else…and because of that…my heart…is not settled…and my hope for justice…and my promise to you…have both been compromised…I believe in my heart that we would have won in court but I was told to consider the risk of that not happening…Our family has already been through almost 5 years of pain, frustration, disappointments, and stress…and there was the opinion that even if we won the county would appeal and that would mean a few more years and resources fighting what could still be a losing battle.

Two million dollars in hand, and yet they felt empty.  Sal’s mother apologized for her decision to settle the case, as if she had compromised his death. 

That the settlement included an explicit assertion that the settling party admitted no wrongdoing is par for the course.  It’s the nature of settlement, that “thing” that so many who adore consensus and compromise above all else prize above all else.  Descriptions and examples always involve settling parties being so much kinder, more mature, more empathetic and understanding than the churlish ideologues who insist on an outcome. 

Of course, those who stand firm also stake their win on the system working like a well-oiled machine, one that not only produces the right outcome but does so within the time from of a life in being plus some two-digit number of years.  Not a great bet.

Both Anita Culosi’s pain, and Radley Balko’s complaint, miss a crucial aspect of the law.  The law often fails to provide a remedy for all that people can do to each other.  In this case, people includes governments, and even police officers.  In fact, the law is a particularly worthless instrument when it comes to government and police officers, and this is deliberate. 

The reason is clear: Governments and police officers screw up all the time, and if they were held responsible every time they screwed up, they would (a) never do the job we require of them and (b) cost the citizenry a bloody fortune. 

Lawyers realize what a blunt instrument the law can be.  We live with the reality that it works poorly, if at all, to satisfy the purposes society expects of it while covering its failure in sweet platitudes.  That we can occasionally get in one solid blow to the head is a huge win.  Huge.  But only to us.  Not to the people we fight for. 

People expect too much of the law.  They expect it to meet all the silly platitudes etched over courthouse doorways, the sort of stuff that we teach grade school children to make them want to win the good citizenship award.  It’s not that we shouldn’t expect the law to be better, though what would constitute better depends largely on where one’s standing, but that the system as it exists is rough at best.  Perhaps it’s time for a new third grade civics lesson. Nah, that would just make people feel badly about the law, and as all officials know, we could never keep people in line if they don’t respect The Law.

Rather than feel the pain of having settled rather than demanded a declaration from a judge or jury that SWAT Detective Deval Bullock was wrong to kill Sal Culosi, his mother Anita needs to understand that she won on Sal’s behalf.  In fact, she won big.  She got her admission of guilt, two million admissions of guilt.  Guilt, guilt, guilt.  She has nothing to feel badly about.  She did right by her son.

Let’s not bemoan that the system didn’t scream out to the world that Bullock needless, stupidly, violently killed Sal Culosi.  It did.  It did exactly that, to the extent the system is capable of doing what people want it to do.  Not only was this a blow to the head, but she knocked the system clean on its butt. 

We need to recognize a win for what it is.  We need to stop having naive expectations of a system that isn’t yet capable of giving us what we were told as children it can do.  The system doesn’t work that way. It doesn’t work that well.  The system doesn’t vindicate rights and produce justice in clear, simple words that express all the pain in our hearts and minds. 

When the system gives us two million admissions of guilt, it’s a damn fine day for the system.  This is the best it works, and to let that pretense that the defendant admits no wrongdoing bother us is silly and childish.  Everyone knows they were wrong, and they put two million dollars on the table to prove it. 

Bullock was wrong to kill Sal Culosi, and rather than decry that lack of express admission, let’s scream out that it was wrong and this proves it as best a lousy system can.

6 comments on “Things The Law Doesn’t Do Well

  1. mirriam

    It’s a tough conversation to have with clients – you might win but they will never say they are sorry.

    My uncle lost a child, a one year old boy who was just learning to stand up. He went to a lawyer in tears and wanted to sue someone, anyway. The lawyer said no one is going to give you back your son, and no one will ever say they are sorry. Since that’s what he wanted and wasn’t what he was going to get (and he wouldn’t have won anyway) he decided not to go forward. He went to law school instead.

    I doubt that even an apology would heal a mother’s heart.

  2. SHG

    Much like a defendant being sentenced to death satisfying a craving for revenge, an apology doesn’t give back a lost child.  The law is notoriously bad at redressing some grievances, and the lawyer who advised your uncle gave him sound advice.

  3. Dave W.

    Some Monday Morning Quarterbacking (which is not intended on any sort of attack on Culosi’s mother whom I will not judge):

    What she should have done is published the following settlement offer in the media:

    “We are willing to settle for $1 with an admission of wrondoing, or $2M without an admission. The choice is up to the defendants.”

    I don’t know why people in these cases don’t do that.

  4. SHG

    Let’s consider where that might present a problem.  Well, there’s an attorney who worked hard and ought to get paid.  There may be some kids who get hungry?  Perhaps a spouse with a mortgage?  A dollar doesn’t cover what it used to. 

    But what about this?  After she received the offer of $2M without an apology, counter with $1.9M with an admission of wrongdoing.  Could they satisfy their fiduciary obligations by paying out an additional $100k rather than admitting wrong?

  5. Litigation and Trial

    When The Duty To Serve And To Protect Spirals Out Of Control

    Via Scott Greenfield, Radley Balko writes about the $2 million settlement of the Sal Culosi case: Fairfax County detective, David Baucum, overheard [Culosi] and some friends wagering on a college football game at a bar. "To Sal, betting a…

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