Justice Isn’t Just – WHO You Are Matters in US Criminal Courts

In the U.S., we have this idea that the Constitution and the legal system are crafted so that we are all treated equally under the law. It’s even written into that founding document in the Equal Protection Clause, that all men are created equal and shall have the same protection under the laws. But as we see across the country, played out on television and in the news, that isn’t always the case when it comes to the criminal courts and the men and women behind the badge.

In the US Justice isn't blind. Who you are matters in criminal court.No two criminal cases are the same. No two cases involve the same people with the same circumstances getting into the same, or even similar, situations. In that regard, we can’t expect every single assault case, for instance, to travel the same route through the courts. However, that isn’t what we are suggesting when we talk about equal protection under the law.

In Southern California last February, as law enforcement from all over the state were looking for ex-cop and cop-killer Christopher Dorner, a Torrence police officer rammed and opened fire on a pick-up truck that he said he thought belonged to Dorner.  The pick-up wasn’t the same color as the truck Officer Brian McGee was told to look for. The man behind the wheel was also the wrong color—he was white and Dorner was black. While the victim lived, Officer McGee’s mistake could have been fatal. The L.A. District Attorney has decided charges are unwarranted.

During that same time, a Hispanic mother and daughter duo were similarly assaulted by police officers who thought they might be Dorner. The LAPD fired 100 bullets at their truck, not only nailing the pick-up, but neighboring homes, cars, and trees. None of them faced criminal charges either.

In these cases, the cops were looking for a killer. They were scared and had revenge in their hearts. In neither of these cases were the police who fired confronted with a weapon. In neither case did they do the due-diligence to ensure the occupant of the truck(s) was Dorner or even resembled him. In both of these cases, the cops were protected by the local district attorneys who neglected to press charges. You, as a citizen, out looking for revenge—even if the person you sought was a legitimate fugitive—would not be afforded the same protection.

An in-depth piece from CommonWealth, a magazine specific to the state of Massachusetts, recently looked at the role of district attorneys in protecting cops that do wrong. As is true with likely every other state, when police use deadly force, it’s rarely challenged. There, 73 people have been killed at the hands of police officers in the last 12 years. Only three of those cases were referred to a grand jury or inquest to determine if there was wrongdoing. Every single one of them resulted in rulings in favor of the cops.

There’s no question that being a cop is dangerous. But there is definitely some disagreement on whether or not cops in the U.S. are handling the dangers of their jobs appropriately.

“We privilege police officers to use force in a different manner than we might individual citizens,” says John Reinstein a former senior counsel for the ACLU of Massachusetts. “Deadly force comes with its own standard. There is an inherent danger in being a police officer. That has some bearing on this. But that doesn’t mean that they’re exempt from the law or exempt from review or from the justice system.”

keith vidalIn North Carolina, police from three different agencies responded to a call for help. A family was reaching out because their schizophrenic teen refused to take his medication and was threatening his mother with a screwdriver. The police had helped subdue 18-year old Keith Vidal before and his family thought they would do the same this time—help get the teen under control and transport him to get help.

But before the end of the confrontation, the 100-pound, “good kid” would be dead. Just before he was shot and killed, the officer who pulled the trigger was caught on video saying, “We don’t have time for this.”

By all accounts, (all except the officer’s that is), Vidal was subdued. He had been tazed and was in handcuffs. The triggerman first told dispatch that he fired to protect himself. Later he would change his story and say he fired to protect one of the other officers. Police organizations and the various departments have already spoke up in favor of the shooting. But the saga isn’t over. The case  is still under investigation by a state prosecutor’s office. Some are hopeful the investigation will result in charges, while others know these investigations rarely result in holding cops criminally accountable.

In the case of DJ Henry, a football player at Pace University, cops clung to the defense that they felt their life was in jeopardy when the 20-year old attempted to leave a parking lot at a local night club. As he drove away (slowly), he was shot through the window of his vehicle and killed. Again, the cops were cleared and no charges were filed despite overwhelming evidence that a crime was committed.

It’s worth noting that in many of these cases, the district attorneys who investigate have very close relationships with the police departments in question. DA’s are top law enforcement and it’s usually in their best interest to side with the cops and keep those relationships on good terms.

Even when the district attorney decided to levy charges, it isn’t a guarantee that justice will be meted out appropriately. Most recently we saw this in the case of Kelly Thomas, the mentally ill homeless man who was brutally beaten and ultimately killed by two police officers in Orange County. Despite video of the police brutality and audio of Thomas apologizing, crying, and pleading for his father. Despite one of the officers telling Kelly his fists were getting ready to “F* you up.” Despite all of this, the officers were acquitted.

In case after case, we see police officers held to a different standard. They simply say they were in fear for their life and it seems as though all of their actions are justified. Whether there was a weapon present, whether the “suspect” had a real chance at harming the officer, and what other non-lethal options were explored beforehand seem to have no bearing when it comes to these cases. And what’s most troubling of all, it seems like these incidents are happening more and more often.

Ideally, we are all afforded equal protection under the law. But this simply isn’t the practice. Who you are, who you know, and who your victim is—all of these play a significant role in your treatment within the justice system. Though the scales of justice are supposed to be both balanced and blind, it’s becoming more apparent that fairness doesn’t always have a place in the criminal courts.

About David Matson