Videotape Won't Guarantee Inglewood Cop Conviction

The moment the L.A. County Grand jury indicted white Inglewood police officer Jeremy Morse for beating 16 year old-Donovan Jackson, an African-American, Morse's attorney, John D. Barnett, exuberantly declared that Morse would be acquitted. The trial is scheduled to end this week. At first glance, the legal and public opinion deck seems so stacked against Morse that Barnett should be weeping in despair rather than beaming with confidence. The videotape pumped into millions of homes caught Morse red-handedly body slamming and punching Jackson.

The howls of protest were so great that Inglewood's police chief immediately slapped Morse with a suspension, and Inglewood's mayor virtually pronounced him guilty of everything from assault to child abuse. Even Attorney General John Ashcroft, frequently lambasted by civil leaders as soft on police abuse, called Morse's action "disturbing," and dispatched his top civil rights honcho to head a federal probe. L.A. County District Attorney Steve Cooley put the case on the super fast track, quickly convened the grand jury, and, by the often-glacial movement of grand juries, returned the indictment at breakneck speed.

But Barnett, who successfully defended one of four officers charged with beating black motorist Rodney King in 1991, remembers what others have forgotten.

When it comes to prosecuting police officers, videotapes, public outrage, and official condemnation don't automatically mean convictions. In the King case, nearly everyone assumed that the tape and outraged public opinion sealed the fate of the cops that beat King. It didn't. The defense got a favorable change of trial venue, a skeptical, if not sympathetic, jury, presented favorable witness and officer support testimony, played up King's unsavory past, and benefited from what seemed like a less than fierce prosecution effort. This was more than enough to obliterate the horrific visual impact of the tape. The officers were acquitted of the major charges.

The King debacle is dramatic proof of the grave danger in banking on a tape to convict bad cops. Yet it's not the only danger prosecutor's face in police abuse cases. The biggest is the jurors. They are much more likely to be conservative, middle-class, and white. Prosecutors, and attorneys that defend cops, hunger to get them on juries because they are more likely to believe the testimony of police and prosecution witnesses than black witnesses, defendants, or even victims. With public respect and reverence for the police at astronomical highs since the September 11 terror attacks, it's even harder to convince many jurors that some police lie, beat, maim, and even kill unarmed suspects.

There are no ironclad standards of what is or isn't acceptable use of force.

It often comes down to a judgment call by the officer. In the King case, defense attorneys turned the tables and painted King as the aggressor and claimed that the level of force used against him was justified. The four New York City cops tried for gunning down African immigrant Amadou Diallo in 1999 also claimed that they feared for their lives. The jury believed them and acquitted them. In Cincinnati, a municipal judge summarily acquitted white Cincinnati police officer Stephen Roach of criminal charges in the slaying of 19-year-old Timothy Thomas during a traffic pursuit in 2001. The shooting ignited three days of riots. The judge bought Roach's tale that he feared for his life, and fired in self-defense.

The code of silence is another powerful obstacle to convicting bad cops.

Officers hide behind it and refuse to testify against other officers, or tailor their testimony to put the officer's action in the best possible light. A second officer, for instance, was indicted with Morse for falsifying the report of the Jackson beating. But what if he hadn't been suspected of doctoring his report? It would have stood as the official version of the beating and prosecutors would have been hard pressed to discredit Morse. Prosecutors also are barred from using statements made during internal investigations of officer misconduct in court proceedings on grounds of self-incrimination. This knocks out another potentially crucial prosecution weapon. Then they are assured of top gun defense attorneys, paid for by police unions, ridiculously low bail, and no-pre-trial jail time.

Federal prosecutors that retried the officers that beat King learned a vital lesson from the abysmal failure of local prosecutors to convict them. They did not rely exclusively on the tape, but on expert testimony on the use of force to prove that the officers went way over the top against King. But despite the massive time, resources, and care they devoted to the case, they still only managed to convict two of the four officers.

Barnett well knows that nailing cops is a rough task for even the most diligent prosecutor. He's betting that it will take much more than a tape to nail his client. It's not a bad bet.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst.


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