Freddie Gray

Justice and Freddie Gray

Prosecution isn't necessarily the best tool for appeasing anger.

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Balitmore Police booking photos
Baltimore Police Booking Photos

Local prosecutors, being elected to office, are subject to the rule of the people. Their decisions, however, are not—or at least they shouldn't be. Any state's attorney or district attorney worthy of the office gives public opinion about particular cases exactly the weight it deserves: zero. 

If you need evidence for the wisdom of that approach, take the decision of Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby to indict six police officers in connection with the arrest of Freddie Gray. The 25-year-old African-American's death from spinal injuries while in police custody had echoes of the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. It set off protests and riots that went on for days. 

Mosby helped restore calm by announcing the charges less than two weeks after Gray's death. "To the people of Baltimore and the demonstrators across America: I heard your call for 'No justice, no peace,'" she said then, promising "to deliver justice on behalf of this young man." In the strife-torn city, reported The New York Times, her "surprise announcement did seem to bring a palpable sense of relief." 

The Black Lives Matter movement has voluminous cause to protest the lethal treatment of African-Americans by police. John Crawford was shot to death in an Ohio Wal-Mart while holding a BB gun he had taken off the shelf. Walter Scott, unarmed and fleeing after a traffic stop in South Carolina, died from multiple gunshots in the back. Laquan McDonald was riddled with 16 bullets while walking away from Chicago police. 

But criminal prosecutions are the wrong tool for appeasing legitimate anger about broad patterns of police abuse and overcoming centuries of discrimination. Their function is to hold wrongdoers accountable for specific offenses. They should be brought only when the evidence is sufficient to prove guilt. 

In the case of Gray, three different cops have gone on trial and none has been convicted. The first trial produced a hung jury, and the other two ended in acquittal. The outcomes support the accusation by Hal Riedl, a white investigator for the previous state's attorney, that this "was a totally political prosecution." 

The latest verdict doesn't mean the cop was blameless. But as the judge said, "the state has failed to meet its burden to show that the actions of the defendant rose above mere civil negligence." 

Declining to file charges in the case would have been politically risky for Mosby. But prosecutors have a duty to put such considerations aside before putting a police officer or any other citizen at the mercy of the criminal justice system. 

Withstanding the pressure of public sentiment is a part of the job that St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch took seriously after Ferguson patrol officer Darren Wilson fatally shot Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old. After presenting evidence to a grand jury that refused to bring charges, allowing Wilson to go free, McCulloch was reviled from coast to coast. 

But he explained his decision not to pursue an indictment with admirable concision: "I know what it takes to prove a case in court, and if I can't prove it, I can't charge it." 

Responding to the uproar and the unanswered questions about the killing, Attorney General Eric Holder ordered a Justice Department investigation of whether the officer violated Brown's civil rights. It found "no credible evidence to refute Wilson's stated subjective belief that he was acting in self-defense." 

Holder endorsed that finding. "Brown's death, though a tragedy, did not involve prosecutable conduct on the part of Officer Wilson," he said. 

A separate Justice Department report concluded that law enforcement in Ferguson has been unfair and brutal in its treatment of African-Americans. "These disparities occur, at least in part, because Ferguson law enforcement practices are directly shaped and perpetuated by racial bias," it found. The city ended up agreeing to major changes to avoid a federal lawsuit. 

In some ways, Brown's fate may have been the toxic product of an inequitable criminal justice system. But McCulloch recognized that indicting Wilson would have been neither helpful nor sufficient in bringing about fundamental improvements. If there was guilt, it lay elsewhere. 

When people die at the hands of police, there is often a furious public outcry against the cops involved. As these cases reveal, though, snap conclusions based on incomplete evidence can be terribly mistaken. Mob justice can be satisfying, but it's rarely justice. 

© Copyright 2016 by Creators Syndicate Inc. 

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  1. But he explained his decision not to pursue an indictment with admirable concision: “I know what it takes to prove a case in court, and if I can’t prove it, I can’t charge it.”

    You don’t have to disagree with the larger premise to note that McCulloch behaved irregularly in presenting the case to the grand jury. If that were Steve Chapman up there, it’s doubtful he would have thought twice about bringing charges. He would have overcharged in the hopes of getting some sort of plea deal, most likely. But because it was a cop he decided to do what no prosecutor does before a grand jury and presented evidence that undermined his own case. There was no honest attempt to prosecute.

    Perhaps that is how it should work for all defendants, but it isn’t. It’s just how McCulloch weaseled his way out of being held accountable. He wanted his cake and to eat it, too.

    1. He would have overcharged in the hopes of getting some sort of plea deal, most likely.

      I suspect this is hard to achieve when you’re trying to coerce a guilty plea out of someone as familiar with the process as a cop surely is..

      1. familiar with the process as a cop surely is..

        Citation needed.

    2. It’s interesting to me how in other kinds of cases, “He would have overcharged in the hopes of getting some sort of plea deal“, is derided as a way that overzealous prosecutors intimidate people into not fighting charges against them.

      But here, it’s hunky-dory.

      1. It’s not “hunky-dory”, it’s a double standard. One rule for me, another for thee.

    3. I’d say that before a prosecutor can bring a case to a grand jury he must specifically certify that he wants an indictment. In other words, no buck-passing. Grand juries should then examine the evidence with an open mind, including being open to *not* indicting, but the prosecutors shouldn’t be able to hide behind the grand jurors. There should be a signed form or a transcript where the prosecutor says unambiguously, “I want the grand jury to indict, because I believe the defendant is guilty and I can prove his guilt at an impartial trial.”

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    5. Considering that both of the investigations (by the local authorities and the FBI) into the shooting of Michael Brown found that all of the physical evidence and credible eye witness testimony supported Wilson’s account of the event, and did NOT support the “hands up, don’t shoot” narrative, I’m at a loss to understand exactly why you think McCulloch should have been pushing for an indictment on charges that he couldn’t prove.

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  2. Any state’s attorney or district attorney worthy of the office gives public opinion about particular cases exactly the weight it deserves: zero.

    Yesterday I heard Stephanopoulos talking with some FBI weenie (I haven’t yet determined his name) who said the decision to charge Hillary must take into account the fact that “she is the choice of millions of people”.

    This is *incredible* bullshit, even coming from that segment of the media.

    You know who else was “the choice of millions of people” ….

    1. Sorry, it was US Attorney for the Southern District of New York Preet Bharara. The segment starts ~ 2:55 of the video, with his “being sensitive” crap ~3:20.

      1. Why the fuck is Preet Bharara commenting on Hillary? What the fuck does Preet know about the FBI investigation and how is it his place to make any public statements on the proper enforcement of the law here? Yea, we absolutely don’t need to worry about the integrity of the Justice Department. They are just detached professionals doing their jobs. No special prosecutor needed.

        1. This. The fucker should resign just for this interview.

          Of course, he could probably claim his statements were not specifically about Hillary.

      2. Preet is a truly loathsome human being. What a bootlicking gobshite.

    2. You know who else was “the choice of millions of people” ….

      Richard M. Nixon?

    3. To be fair, he did not actually use the term “the choice of millions of people”, although that is the clear meaning in context.

  3. This excretion of disheveled musings reflects an attempt at a levity so strung out on equilibrium the fonts positing it are even bleeding bullshit.

    Criminal prosecution IS the most powerful tool in the federal/state/local bureaucratic social manipulation arsenal and has been employed against many millions of noncops who deviate from engineered existence paths legislated by suits slithering with the rank ineptitude of hackery, lobbyists, and autocracy.

    But, when fucking citizens gather rarely to deploy the same fucking mechanism to severe injustice engaged in by the state Chapman rides a screeching blaring horn-covered coach from his shimmering forest of super-duper righteousness to set the goddamn record straight.

    It’s not that your fucking intrinsic concept here is shit, Stevie Boy Chapman- it is just the amount of letters explaining the obvious glorifies excess symmetry at the cost of burning reality to the ground.

    1. I want one of those horn-covered coaches. My Uber ratings would rock.

  4. Im consistently dismayed and astonished that, despite the enormous number of legitimate excessive force incidents, the media, protestors & prosecutors focus on cases with a high degree of ambiguity – like gray & brown. The most shocking cases (the 12 year old boy murdered for having a toy gun in a park is one that sticks with me) either fail to attract national media attention, or prosecutors decline to file charges or act as a police defense attorney during grand jury proceedings.

    The system is rigged, the press is too full of self-serving & incompetent authoritarians to regularly investigate murders by police with the tenacity it deserves, and the public is so jaw-draggingly stupid that Law & Order has an exponentially greater impact on public opinion toward LE than anything in the news, anyway.

    1. I think that in the case of Tamir Rice, which has indeed garnered some national media attention, albeit not as much as for Brown and Gray, the fact that there’s video of him brandishing the toy gun at passersby (before the cops arrived) made the case much harder to sell.

      1. To me, Rice is the epitome of the insanity of deference to police. That was the straight-up murder of a child by a mentally unstable coward. He got fired from his previous job for incompetence and emotional instability. His crime was caught on tape. And all we hear is “totality of circs!” and “officer safety!”

        You can’t give a little boy a chance? You’re such a pants-shitting coward you’re throwing lead when it is physically impossible for you to have adequately asessed the situation? Fuck that cop. A Soldier or Marine in a combat zone would have been court-martialled.

        1. To be clear: nothing I said above was about what happened when the cops showed up. Rice was brandishing the toy gun before they arrived, which is why they were called. It is not why he died.

    2. high degree of ambiguity – like gray & brown.

      Personally, I wouldn’t put these two in remotely the same class. Brown was guilty. Wilson was inept. Gray, OTOH, was guilty of what crime exactly?

      I think Tamir Rice is too easy write off as a horrible tragedy whereas Gray being arrested for ‘walking while black’ gets to the heart of the issue (Whatever particular issue you think that may be).

      1. Holy shit. I honestly had no idea why Gray was stopped. So much attention was focused on his treatment in custody, that I figured he must have been caught doing something criminal. Nope.

        They arrested him because he ran from them in a bad neighborhood. There was no report of any crime, no concrete evidence, not even so much as a suspect description.

        WTF

        1. Not to mention that, six cops and a dead perp and the best story they can come up with was, “We stopped him because he had a knife in his pocket.” They may as well have just said “His neck was broken when we got here.”

  5. I don’t know if the Baltimore cops are guilty, but I won’t take a judge’s word for it.

    I’m against letting politically-connected people and public officials choosing to be tried by a judge if they’re charged with a crime. If they deny guilt, a jury should be empaneled. Otherwise the fate of the defendant is in the hands of a a member of the system.

    1. I don’t know if the Baltimore cops are guilty, but I won’t take a judge’s word for it.

      IMO, just like Darren Wilson, regardless of the outcome of the trial, these officers should be granted the opportunity to be demoted or step down. Law aside, I’m unable to fathom another job that would suspend with pay for such gross incompetence.

      1. I believe Wilson *did* step down.

        Some other department probably hired him, but I don’t think being the hate-figure of a retard-riot should disqualify anyone, even a cop, from a job.

        1. Wilson stepped down, supposedly, in lieu of being dismissed. IMO, this was an ideal outcome because assuming he *knew* Brown to be guilty, he still got into a John Woo pistol slap-fight inside his cruiser.

          Eggs get trucked across the country largely in tact by guys hopped up on speed with little/no formal education but a professional driver, dressed in ‘hero blue’ can’t drive someone a dozen blocks without killing them? Off-the-street TSA corpses as well as private security guards manage to relieve people of knives, nail files, hair pins, boxcutters, and all manner of pointy and not-so pointy objects day-in-day out without filing any charges or killing anyone and these heroes in blue somehow can’t?

  6. So I guess no one is responsible for Freddie Gray’s death. Not even Freddie Gray.

    1. Mistakes were made. Injuries were sustained. Life was ended.

    2. So I guess no one is responsible for Freddie Gray’s death.

      It boggles my mind that people who aren’t bright enough to differentiate between “There’s no proof that this individual is guilty of the crimes charged” and “Nobody is responsible for this thing happening” can actually operate a computer.

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  8. RE: Justice and Freddie Gray
    Prosecution isn’t necessarily the best tool for appeasing anger.

    The prosecutor was doing his job properly.
    The defendants should’ve have welcomed their jail time because it shows them who is boss.
    The unwashed masses have no right to anger or other displays of frustration.
    Such demonstrations will only frighten and/or annoy our beloved slavers in power.
    They weren’t put into positions of power to help the little people.
    They have more important things to do like figuring out a way to make our country a more progressive state like Cuba, North Korea of Venezuela.
    Did these incarcerated people ever stop to think about that, or are they just that selfish?

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  10. “The outcomes support the accusation by Hal Riedl, a white investigator for the previous state’s attorney, that this “was a totally political prosecution.”

    Well, duh, they said as much right at the outset.

    “To the people of Baltimore and the demonstrators across America: I heard your call for ‘No justice, no peace,'” she said then, promising “to deliver justice on behalf of this young man.”

    The fact they leveled charges that obviously couldn’t be proven by anything other than one of them rolling on the others meant that this is no-risk all-reward for the DA.

  11. Sometimes the best solution can be a civil suit for damages, as in the OJ Simpson case. No “presumption of non-liability”; the burden of proof is “balance of the evidence”, not “beyond a reasonable doubt”; no prosecutor shenanigans; no union attorneys; and both attorneys are fighting for money, not blood, so there’s much less publicity.
    Prosecutions are hot, emotional, while civil suits are cold, analytical. And revenge, as we all know, is a dish best eaten cold.

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  15. “Responding to the uproar and the unanswered questions about the killing, Attorney General Eric Holder ordered a Justice Department investigation of whether the officer violated Brown’s civil rights. It found “no credible evidence to refute Wilson’s stated subjective belief that he was acting in self-defense. Holder endorsed that finding. “Brown’s death, though a tragedy, did not involve prosecutable conduct on the part of Officer Wilson,” he said ”

    .
    .
    While Wilson may have believed he was acting in self defense, that belief may be unfounded and thus fail to justify him killing Mike Brown. I find it very very plausible and quite believable that he did fear for his life, but fear alone isn’t enough- it must be reasonable fear. For example, it could be that Wilson was afraid, but was afraid because Brown was black. Or because he was large. Or 18. Or it was night. None of those are enough to justify a self defense killing. If Mike Brown was armed, that could be a reasonable cause of fear. But without a reasonable cause of fear, we must hold the perpetrator of violence responsible.

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