No Joy In Hungville, Mighty Prosecutors Have Struck Out

Much has been made of the acquittal of Jeronimo Yanez for the killing of Philando Castile, and lets not forget that this isn’t the first time that the batting average of prosecutors took a dive when it was a cop in the dock. Greg Prickett provides a short review.

University of Cincinnati Police Officer Ray Tensing just had his second trial for the murder of Samuel DeBose end in a hung jury. In Minnesota, Saint Anthony Police Officer Jeronimo Yanez was acquitted for the killing of Philando Castile. In Wisconsin, Milwaukee Police Officer Dominique Heaggan-Brown was acquitted in the reckless homicide of Sylville Smith. Tulsa Police Officer Betty Jo Shelby was found not guilty of manslaughter. Hummelstown, Pennsylvania Police Officer Lisa Mearkle acquitted of murder. Cleveland Police Officer Michael Brelo, acquitted. North Charleston Police Officer Michael Slager, mistrial on state murder charge. I could go on and on.

Greg’s purpose isn’t to fuel another round of outrage, or to set the stage for more demands that the system confess to racism. Rather, he suggests that this may not be a bad thing.

When you have a police officer shoot and kill someone, it has been extremely rare that the officer is criminally charged, but that’s changing. It is believed that Yanez is the first Minnesota police officer that has faced trial for an on-duty shooting. Shelby was the first Tulsa officer prosecuted for an on-duty shooting. It’s rare, but things are changing, and that’s a good sign. As a society, we need to hold police officers accountable, and to do that, we put them in front of a jury, in front of our fellow citizens, who we entrust to do their duty and determine if the state has proved its case beyond a reasonable doubt.

So the mere fact that cops are being prosecuted at all can be viewed as a positive, given that they largely managed to escape culpability at all prior to the days when there was video showing the reality on the street. Before video, we simply believed the lies, the whitewash, because whom are you going to believe, a brave, hero cop or some scumbag criminal mutt?

And it’s not as if an acquittal or mistrial means they hop back into the cruiser to kill again.

If the state hasn’t met it’s burden, then the officer is found not guilty—but that doesn’t mean everything ends well for the officer. Yanez, Brelo, and Heaggan-Brown are out of a job and will likely never work in law enforcement again. Shelby has been pulled off of the street and put in a desk job. Slager pleaded guilty to federal civil rights charges. None will ever be the same.

None will ever be the same, but then, neither will the people they killed. Because they’re dead. Remember that old saw, “better to be judged by 12 than carried by 6,” spoken by Betty Shelby in her 60 Minutes interview? Something tells me that goes as well for the dead non-cops, but they weren’t given that option.

Some will complain that the officers should have been convicted, that the jury gave them the benefit of the doubt.

OK. So what if they did? That’s what they are supposed to do for everyone. I’m good with that, and I’m good with the verdicts. We are not supposed to railroad these officers, we are supposed to try them, and give their case to a jury. That’s it.

Greg is right. Just not right enough. Of course police officers are just as entitled to the full panoply of constitutional rights as anyone else. Of course they shouldn’t be “railroaded” any more than anyone else should be. Of course they are entitled to be judged by a jury.

But as Orwell related in Animal Farm, some pigs are more equal than others.

And when more and more officers appear in front of a jury, you’ll start seeing officers being convicted, because the state will prove its case. You’ll start to see less of a break given to the officers by the jurors, because they will have seen more officers on trial.

What distinguishes the trial of a police officer from the trial of any other defendant is the core belief that they don’t act out of malice, although that can happen at times as well. The defense is almost invariably the same, stupid fear, whether born of their being unduly self-protective or prejudice. Cops will not risk violating the First Rule of Policing, and the more fearful among them will kill at the slightest hint of the potential of a possible threat of inchoate harm. See what I did there?

Combine this with the imputation of criminality based on race, that black guys are more likely violent, and therefore cops will rush to assume a threat based on skin color, and the risk of wrongful death at the hands of a cop to a black guy becomes totally understandable. It’s also totally wrong.

Layer on top the law and the “experts” who copsplain why it’s so hard, so sad, so split-second-y, to be a cop. When is the last time a non-cop defendant was permitted to call an expert to explain why his perceptions, though completely wrong, were objectively reasonable?

It’s not that Greg is wrong about our complaining that the system is working just because we’re disinclined to be sympathetic to a particular class of defendants. That clearly has some dangerous potential, given how despised some defendants are and how disinclined some people are toward accepting the premise that maybe, just maybe, they aren’t guilty. After all, once you’re convicted in the court of public opinion, there is no appeal.

But the problem with cops isn’t the same as the problem with Cosby. There are some rather hard differences in their defenses, how their conduct is viewed, the latitude a judge and jury will give them, that may never translate to a fair trial for any non-cop. So while Greg’s contention that a fair trial for a defendant, even if he happens to be a cop, is a good thing, has merit, it’s not the sort of merit that benefits any other defendant. It’s not that the system works, but that it works better for cops.

6 thoughts on “No Joy In Hungville, Mighty Prosecutors Have Struck Out

  1. jay-w

    For the benefit of us non-lawyers in the audience:
    Can you say whether it is possible that the prosecutors are “striking out” on purpose? In other words, are these “show trials” in reverse? Could they be deliberately putting on weak cases so as to raise the probability of acquittals?

    1. SHG Post author

      I allow you to read, and yet you have the audacity to demand more of me? Worse yet, did you really mean to ask your question as if there is a mass conspiracy of prosecutors nationwide to present show trials for the public? Do they all wear funny hats and have a secret handshake, too? Be satisfied with being allowed to read and never darken my comments with foolish questions “for the benefit of [you] non-lawyers in the audience.” Now hit the tip jar on the way out.

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