Lessons From The Jackson Beating Trials

In the wake of two hung juries for former Inglewood police officer Jeremy Morse in the Donovan Jackson beating case, L.A. County District Attorney Steve Cooley acknowledged the obvious; prosecuting cops in racially charged cases is always a tough task. Morse's defense attorney, John Barnett, correctly noted that probably no jury would acquit or convict Morse. A third trial for Morse is pointless. But there are valuable lessons that can be learned from the Jackson beating trials.

Black leaders and officials feared that an acquittal of Morse and his partner Bijan Darvish in the first trial would ignite another orgy of looting and violence. This happened in 1992 when a Simi Valley jury with no blacks acquitted the four white LAPD officers of most of the charges in the beating of Rodney King. But the Jackson beating case and the circumstances around it were markedly different than the King case. Inglewood police and city officials moved swiftly to defuse tensions. They promised a full investigation, and even urged that Morse be prosecuted. He was subsequently fired, and Darvish suspended.

Following community protests, Cooley asked for and got a speedy indictment of the officers. Cooley's action sent a strong signal that police misconduct would not be tolerated. The videotape pumped into millions of homes caught Morse red-handedly body slamming and punching Jackson. Many blacks felt this was shocking, and graphic proof that Morse was guilty of abuse. Yet, the painful and lingering memory of the LAPD officers acquittal in the King beating trial, the deep reluctance of prosecutors to charge police with abuse, and the reluctance of jurors to convict cops of abuse in racially tinged cases when charges are brought, sobered many blacks to the fact that the odds were great the Inglewood officers would not be convicted. The media also missed the boat. It continually harped on the possibility of a riot. This subtly reinforced the stereotype of African-Americans as lawless, violence prone, and eternally hostile to the system. Nothing could be further from the truth. The skepticism many blacks have toward the criminal justice system mutes, not fuels, their anger and hostility when white cops beat abuse charges.

Then there were the trials. The defense attorneys were highly skilled, and had much experience defending police officers accused of misconduct. They quickly stole a page from the playbook the defense used in the King trial. They got a relatively benign change of trial venue. They got a jury with only one black in the first trial. In the second, there were only two black jurors. Though a juror in the second trial publicly assured that there was no racial divide in the jury room, the presumption is that white jurors are much more likely to be middle-class, and conservative, and much more likely to believe the testimony of police and prosecution witnesses than black witnesses, defendants, or even victims, as Jackson allegedly was. The defense presented favorable testimony from a use of force expert that the force used to subdue Jackson -- who they claimed resisted arrest -- was legal and acceptable. It then turned a blunder the prosecutors made against them. In the first trial, their principal use of force expert claimed that the excessive force used against Jackson did not meet the standard of a punishable crime. The defense took the cue, and in the second trial, its use of force expert went further and claimed that the use of force was necessary and required to subdue an allegedly violently resisting Jackson. There are no ironclad standards of what is or isn't acceptable use of force, or what degree of force is excessive. It often comes down to a judgment call by the officer.

This was the wedge that defense attorneys used to create just enough doubt in the minds of some jurors that if Jackson was not the aggressor, he at least put up enough resistance to arrest to justify some use of force to restrain him. These were formidable, even daunting, obstacles that prosecutors in the Jackson beating trials faced. These are the obstacles that make nailing abusive cops a rough task for even the most diligent prosecutors. Still, Darvish's acquittal in the first trial and Morse's non-conviction doesn't signal a return to the bad old days of lawless police officers. In prosecuting the officers, Cooley sent a strong signal that police abuse will not be tolerated. Inglewood police and city officials pledged to implement effective reforms to improve its tarnished image. The media, and those black leaders that feared a racial explosion in the trials aftermath learned that acquitting cops in racially charged cases would not instantly send blacks rampaging into the streets.

There were no clear winners or losers in the trials. But there were lessons hopefully that were learned that will insure that a Jackson beating won't happen again.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst.

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