When I was young, I remember a version of the Bible which was titled “Good News for Modern Man.” Given that this post involves the prosecution and subsequent acquittal of a police officer for excessive force in Fresno — arguably in the center of the Bible “Belt” of California — and given Supreme Court “Justice” Scalia’s not too distant comments about the “modern” and “professional” police force, it seems appropriate to play off that for this post’s title.
First, let me be clear about something, because every time I write about police abusing their authority, it seems the police supporters come crawling out of the woodwork. In Fresno, as with much of the Central San Joaquin Valley, the police can do no wrong, even when they do. Having said that, this post is not my own personal pronouncement that the jury screwed up and let a guilty man go free. I actually don’t know if that’s true.
I am, however, going to talk about what the newspaper has reported, throw in a few comments from things I’ve heard from attorneys who are more familiar with the facts, and express my opinion.
Well, okay, I’ve already started expressing my opinion: In Fresno, as with much of the Central San Joaquin Valley, the police can do no wrong, even when they do.
As I said, though, I wasn’t involved with this case. I didn’t attend the trial. I only read what was in The Fresno Bee. And I know full well that The Fresno Bee seldom gets the story right when it comes to our courts.
Yet it is worth noting that the failure of a jury to convict does not an innocent man make. Juries are not called on to decide innocence: they’re called on to decide guilt. So when they decide someone is not guilty, they are saying only that guilt was not proven beyond a reasonable doubt. They are not saying someone is innocent. That is not something within their power to do.
As Michael Idiart, a well-respected local criminal defense attorney has noted:
[J]uries read about violent crime in Fresno and are inclined to believe police officers over people portrayed by the defense as gang members.
“A lot of jurors just believe police have a difficult job and criminals have it coming to them.” (Pablo Lopez, “Jury acquits former Fresno officer” (January 26, 2010) p. A6, col. 4, quoting Michael Idiart.)
Marshall Hodgkins, speaking like the good criminal defense lawyer that he is, felt his client had been vindicated — although, remember, he was only found not guilty — and said that a half-courtroom filled with police officers had no impact on the jury:
This was one of the most analytical juries I have ever seen. (Jim Guy, Pablo Lopez and George Hostetter, “Police chief orders two reviews” (January 26, 2010) p. A6, col. 2, quoting Marshall Hodgkins.)
In an attempt to thwart the jury’s analytical skills, the judge in the case ordered that the police officers filling the courtroom in support of their accused comrade could not wear uniforms or carry guns, except when testifying. (The uniforms and guns are necessary when testilying to give the officers’ words extra authority, just in case a Fresno jury was inclined to doubt their veracity.) The jurors were therefore incapable of linking the large number of broad shoulders, short haircuts, their demeanor and the fact that they sat behind the accused officer to a strong police presence.
The truth is, though, that this episode is not just good news for the modern police man (and woman). It’s good news for all of us.
With officers no doubt feeling emboldened by the refusal of Fresno County’s submitizens to ever convict an officer for wrongdoing — this is the second officer acquitted despite fairly strong evidence that something isn’t quite right here — the day may be almost upon us when officers will commit their crimes more openly.
Because what this acquittal convinces me of — whether this officer is factually culpable or not — is that until the abuse reaches “ordinary” submitizens and not just those the police can convincingly argue are ‘gang members,” police misconduct will continue to be a fact of life in Fresno.