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. 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 of the murder of an unarmed Black.
The cheers didn’t last. In both cases judges ignored the demands of prosecutors for long prison stretches for both convicted murderers and gave them light touch sentences. The ex-cops would appeal, and there was absolutely 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 the rare times that happen 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 of the litany of the character assassination hits on the victims they can dredge up. There’s only one aim and that’s to paint the victim as a bad guy. The unstated but intended implication is that the cop who killed was simply doing his or her duty and is the real victim.
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 are top guns, with 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 since then. Police claim that they feared for their lives in confronting civilians and they use deadly force solely in self-defense.
This almost certainly will be Dean’s defense. Body cam footage clearly show that Jefferson inside her house playing a video game with her nephew no less couldn’t possibly pose any threat to the officer. But the “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 twist, turn, dissect, redissect, analyze and reanalyze the footage from every earthly angle. They claim it doesn’t show what led up to the shooting, the supposed aggravating other circumstances. This tact 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. It’s still a matter of what you see is really not what you see in these cases.
The other tact is to play for time. Dean’s trial at minimum is a year away. In that time people forget and passions cool. If there’s a conviction, the cooling off period works for the convicted 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 likely may wind up being another rare case of a cop convicted of murdering an unarmed Black. If past history of cop convictions is any guide, his conviction will come with many strings attached.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on Radio One. He is the author of Why Black Lives Do Matter (Middle Passage Press). He is host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on Pacifica Radio.