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The Ft. Worth cop case – another conviction with many strings attached?

Earl Ofari Hutchinson

In January 2019, when a jury brought back a guilty verdict against former Chicago cop Jason Van Dyke in the murder of Laquan McDonald, there were loud cheers that justice had been done; namely a white cop finally tried and convicted of the murder of an unarmed black man. Nearly a year later when the jury brought back a guilty verdict of former Dallas cop Amber Guyger in the murder of Botham Jean there were loud cheers again that justice had been done; namely another white cop finally tried and convicted for such a crime.

The cheers didn’t last. In both cases judges ignored the demands of prosecutors for long prison stretches and gave light-touch sentences. The ex-cops would appeal, and there was no guarantee that even these sentences would stand. In the case of Guyger, the sentence came with hugs, a Bible and hair strokes from the judge and a court deputy.

The convictions and the kid-glove treatment both former cops got is a glaring cautionary signal that convictions of cops are far different than the convictions of those without a badge and a gun. It starts just before their arrest. Police officials quickly hold press conferences and solemnly promise a thorough investigation. Meanwhile, they leak any damaging and scurrilous information about the victim they can. That’s any arrest record, any family deviancy, any drug and alcohol issues, or any other character assassination hits they can dredge up.

The smear job against Atatiana Jefferson was getting into gear when police flashed pictures of the gun that was found in her home. Mercifully, it fell flat when it was quickly noted the gun was legally registered and owned and Texas is an open carry state. An embarrassed Ft. Worth police chief and mayor quickly backpedaled and apologized that this smear was out there.

The cops are placed on administrative (paid) leave pending the start or finish of the pro forma promised investigation. When charges are filed, they are given an almost laughable bail given the seriousness of the crime. They post it immediately almost always through their police union. They do not serve one day in jail after they’re charged. Their defense lawyers almost always have lots of experience defending police officers accused of misconduct. Police unions bankroll their defense and spare no expense.

When the cops are tried by a jury, police defense attorneys seek to get as many middle-class people, whites and even blacks and Latinos, on the jury as possible. The presumption is that they are much more likely to believe the testimony of police and police defense witnesses than Black witnesses, defendants or even the victims. It’s a presumption that has been borne out in police misconduct trials time and again. It’s an uphill battle for prosecutors to overcome both pro-police attitudes and negative racial stereotypes.

There is also no ironclad standard of what is or isn’t an acceptable use of force in police misconduct cases. It often comes down to a judgment call by the officer. In the Rodney King beating case in 1992 in which four LAPD officers stood trial, defense attorneys painted King as the aggressor and claimed that the level of force used against him was justified. This pattern has been evident in a number of celebrated cases. Police claim that they feared for their lives in confronting civilians and they use deadly force solely in self-defense.

“I feared for my life” is still the tried and true standard police fallback tactic. In Dean’s case, the operative words are “perceived threat” from Jefferson.

Defense attorneys will claim the camera footage doesn’t show what led up to the shooting ⎯ the supposed aggravating circumstances. This tack has been used repeatedly in other instances where videos and cell phone footage catch a cop committing an abuse against an unarmed non-resisting citizen.

The other tack is to play for time. Dean’s trial at minimum is a year away. In that time people forget and passions cool. The cooling-off period works for the cop. The public outrage that immediately followed the killing is long gone and judges can ignore a prosecutor’s demand for tough sentencing with little fear of a public backlash.

So, Dean may wind up being another rare case of a cop convicted of murdering a black woman. If past history is any guide, his conviction will come with many strings attached.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst.

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