We Want Justice! … Until We Don’t
We Demand Justice!
That’s the cry we hear the moment a police officer is involved in a shooting. And, the calls for justice are, well, just. Police officers are not above the law and must be held accountable for their actions just like anyone else.
So first we hear, “He/she (the officer) murdered that man!”
Next … “Lock him/her up!”
Those sentiments are sometimes understandable, especially when coming from those who’re close to the person who died. But they’re also the boilerplate words of the people who hate cops and everything they do, including existing on this planet. And they’re often the words of the misinformed or uninformed. And, unfortunately, they also follow an unjustified shooting, which, thankfully, is rare.
These calls for “justice” often come far too soon, because at that point, immediately following the incident, no one other than the officer who fired the final round has any idea at all as to what took place from his/her point of view. No one else saw and experienced what they did. No one.
So what are the rules governing a police officer’s use of deadly force? Where did the rules originate? Were they drafted by a group of trigger-happy cops? Well, it may surprise some of you to know that the law pertaining to the use of force was set in stone by the Supreme Court, and it is the rule of law that must be adhered to by ALL police officers, as well as the judges and juries who must hear and decide the cases resulting from the use of deadly force.
Here’s The Court’s ruling:
“The “reasonableness” of a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight. The calculus of reasonableness must embody allowance for the fact that police officers are often forced to make split-second judgments—in circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving—about the amount of force that is necessary in a particular situation.” [Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386 (1989)]
Basically, The Court said that as a result of the split-second life or death decisions officers are forced to make, we may not use “Monday Morning Quarterbacking” to judge them.
Back to the public’s very loud cries for justice.
So they get what they want. A prosecutor decides probable cause exists to charge a police officer who was involved in a deadly force incident where the subject was killed. The officer is arrested and jailed.
This is what the public wanted—an arrest. And what follows an arrest? A trial. But the people who begin their protesting 1.5 seconds following a police-involved shooting seem to want to skip the trial portion of the process and immediately hop on over to a public tortuous death-by-fire-ant and piranha consumption.
But that’s not how the legal system in this country works. We take our problems to court where a judge or jury of our peers decides the case, not sign- and rock-carrying mobs who burn and loot stores, the very dangerous out-of-control adult equivalent of a child’s temper-tantrum.
A jury trial …
In the most recent case where Minnesota police officer Jeronimo Yanez, a Mexican-American, shot and killed Philando Castile during a traffic stop, a total of 12 jurors and as many as 6 alternates were chosen from a pool of 50 people to hear his case. He was charged with one count of second-degree manslaughter and two counts of felony dangerous discharge of a firearm.
By the way, in Minnesota, jurors are selected at random by computer from a list of people with drivers licenses, state IDs, and those who have registered to vote. I’ll say this again, the jurors (seven men, five women—ten white, two African American) were chosen randomly, by computer.
Judge William Leary, the judge in the Yanez trial, explained in his instructions to jurors, that the defendant should be presumed innocent until proven guilty, adding, “This presumption remains with the defendant unless and until the defendant has been proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Keep in mind, the defendant does not have to prove his or her innocence.
The Yanez trial ended with the jury deliberating for 27 hours. They poured over the trial evidence and statements and testimonies. And, at first they could not come to a unanimous decision, which is required by Minnesota law. Ten jurors voted guilty while two held out. The two who weren’t convinced of guilt were not people of color, so the indecision did not fall on racial issues.
In the end, though, all twelve jurors agreed and Jeronimo Yanez was a free man, cleared of all charges. One of the Yanez jurors, Dennis Ploussard, said the prosecution simply did not prove their case. “It was very hard to come to the conclusion we did. Very hard. We dissected the law yesterday for most of the day, where we could put it in layman’s terms where we could understand it. Because the way the law is written by lawyers, you really have to sit down and dissect it and figure out what it really means, and we did that and the law was in favor of Yanez.”
He also went a bit further, saying this about the public’s negative reaction to the verdict. “Well they didn’t see all the evidence we did. And they didn’t read what the law actually, really interprets the situation of manslaughter in the second degree.”
Then, the verdict was announced and the streets filled with protestors who didn’t get the results they wanted. Again, these protestors were people who didn’t see all the evidence seen by the jurors, and they didn’t read what the law actually states with regard to the case in question. Instead of taking the time to learn and read and react to facts, they went with emotion and headed for the streets.
We have a legal system in place. It involves courts and attorneys and judges and juries.
When someone is charged with a crime the courts decides their fate. Juries are made up of us, citizens of our communities. They’re you, me, and our friends and neighbors. People we like and some we don’t. They selected randomly. No one knows who’ll be chosen to serve. It’s as fair as it gets with what we have to work with … humans. And this is all supposed to play out in a formal courtroom setting, not in the streets tossing bricks at store windows. Trials are where juries hear the evidence and they then make their decisions based on the law and common sense.
Ah, common sense. It used to exist on this planet. It had a place here. It really did. Still does, actually. I wish it would return from wherever it’s hiding, because we need a double helping of it right now.
*By the way, the police have no say-so in courtroom verdicts. This is totally the responsibility of judges and juries. They alone alone make those decisions. Again, police officers have absolutely nothing to do with the decisions made by juries and/or judges.
The Yanez jurors:
They started with 50 randomly-selected people. Attorneys for both sides had the opportunity to speak with each person and either reject or accept them as jurors. In the end, 12 were chosen. They were:
Juror 1: Young black male—works as a shift manager at Wendy’s and personal care attendant for his mom. Never had a run-in with police and believes the rich could get off in the legal system because they could hire better attorneys.
Juror 2: An older white female who manages a gas station that has a contract with police. She said she had never heard of the Castile case.
Juror 3: Middle-aged white male whose wife works for the St. Paul School District, the same place Castile worked — but she did not know him. He lives very close to the location of the shooting.
Juror 4: A middle-aged white male who said he had very little knowledge of the case.
Juror 5: A middle-aged white female who works at an assisted-living center and is active in church volunteer work.
Juror 6: A white male wellness coach was the jury foreperson. He believes too many “victimless” crimes are prosecuted.
Juror 7: A white female who works as a nurse at the same hospital as Yanez’s wife, but said she does not know her. She said she was “dissatisfied” with how police responded to a call in 1996.
Juror 8: An 18-year-old Ethiopian-American female who immigrated to America when she was 10.
Juror 9: A middle-aged computer support worker. She believes in the right to own a firearm but said, “I’m trying to stay away from them right now.”
Juror 10: A middle-aged retired white male. He owns a handgun and hunts.
Juror 11: A middle-aged white male who owns several shotguns and long rifles to hunt pheasants.
Juror 12: A middle-aged white male who believes minor criminal offenses snowball and trap people in the justice system. “It seems like it’s rigged against you,” he said.
*One thing to remember, department use of force policies can vary from one department to another. However, agencies can only make their rules tougher than the laws allow, not more relaxed.
It seems that in some instances, at least, people are redefining justice to mean, “what the mob wants to happen.” Our legal system does have some well-known flaws, and I don’t ignore those. But, with all those flaws, trial by jury is the only defense I know against trial by caprice, either of an unaccountable magistrate or an unaccountable lynch mob. The presumption of innocence of any defendant, the necessity of the State to prove guilt beyond reasonable doubt–these are all that protect any of us from imprisonment/execution at the whim of whatever group or individual holds power at the moment. To reject these protections in any one instance effectively obviates them in all. That way lies societal suicide.