Last week a grand jury indicted a New Orleans police officer who killed an unarmed 20-year-old man during a pot raid last March. Officer Joshua Colclough shot Wendell Allen shortly after police burst into his home in the Gentilly neighborhood of New Orleans while serving a search warrant aimed at uncovering evidence of marijuana dealing. (They found 4.5 ounces of pot, along with bags, digital scales, and a handgun.) Colclough's attorney, Pat Fanning, describes the circumstances of the shooting this way:
When you serve a search warrant not knowing what's behind that door, you're going in, you place yourself in harm's way. That's what Officer Colclough did.
Then someone steps out on him and startles him and starts raising his hand in his direction. He had to decide in a split second, do I wait to decide if he has a gun in his hand and he shoots me? Or can I assume if he steps out on me, that it was reasonable to fear the guy had a gun and was going to shoot him?
The grand jury evidently deemed it not so reasonable, charging Colclough with manslaughter, defined as a homicide "committed in sudden passion or heat of blood immediately caused by provocation sufficient to deprive an average person of his self-control and cool reflection." That seems to fit the facts of the case pretty well. The grand jury reportedly rejected a charge of second-degree murder, which requires a "a specific intent to kill or to inflict great bodily harm" and triggers a mandatory life sentence. The indictment came a day after Colclough failed to appear at a hearing where he was expected to plead guilty to negligent homicide (defined as "the killing of a human being by criminal negligence"), which carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison. Now Orleans Parish prosecutors are threatening to invoke a provision that requires a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years for offenders who discharge firearms while committing certain violent felonies, including manslaughter (which otherwise carries an indeterminate sentence of up to 40 years). Not fair, says Fanning:
Frankly, if they do that, that is an abuse of the statute. The statute contemplates a criminal committing an intentional criminal act and choosing to use a firearm, as opposed to a police officer who not only carries a gun in the line of duty, but is required to as a condition of his employment.
Since manslaughter is specifically listed as one of the crimes that triggers a 20-year mandatory minimum when the offender uses a gun, this does not seem like much of a stretch to me. It is surely more reasonable than sending a pot dealer to prison for 55 years because he "used" guns by possessing them for self-defense.
Fanning's plea for lenient treatment of cops who kill reminds me of what Allen's mother said about Colclough after he shot her son:
His police title, that's just a title. He's still a man just like the next man that commits a murder. So my child's crime should be treated the same if he'd gotten killed by a regular man.
Althoug Colclough's indictment is encouraging (and, frankly, surprising), a "regular man" who did what he did would be charged with felony murder: killing someone, even accidentally, while breaking into his home. Thus do the drug laws transform burglary and assault into law enforcement by making peaceful transactions into crimes. In this case, the cops had a warrant, they raided the right location, and they seem to have done everything by the book—except for accidentally killing someone who posed no threat to them. Cops will always be fallible, but the war on drugs unnecessarily multiplies the chances of fatal mistakes like this one.
According to the Drug War Chronicle, which alerted me to Colclough's indictment, Allen's death was the 15th related to domestic drug law enforcement in the U.S. this year. We are now up to 43.