At Reason, Radley 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
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.