Cops on Trial: A Matter of Justice

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Prosecuting police officers is often politically and legally challenging, rarely producing convictions. Paul Butler, a law professor at George Washington University, explains the obstacles of putting cops on trial.


I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. In a moment, with so many African American men behind bars, how can other blacks help put them there? That's a question that some African-Americans confront - African-American prosecutors, I should say, confront behind closed doors. One prosecutor is speaking out in a few minutes, but first, we're going to continue with our conversation about the Sean Bell case. As in other cases alleging brutality by the police, Sean Bell was unarmed when he was killed. And cut down by what some observers see as excessive use of force. And now, as the officers have been acquitted, some wonder, why is so hard to obtain convictions against the police? Are these cases especially hard to prosecute? Should they even be brought? Are they just meant to satisfy community outrage? Here to talk about all this is Paul Butler. He's a professor at George Washington Law School. He's also a former federal prosecutor. His prosecutions included FBI agents and several other law enforcement officials. Welcome thanks for talking to us.

Prof. PAUL BUTLER (Law, George Washington Law School): It's great to be here, Michel.

MARTIN: Do you agree that there seems to be - that these cases are particularly hard to make?

Prof. BUTLER: Oh, from many prosecutors' point of view, these kinds of cases are a nightmare. In part, because the defendants are police officers, the people who a lot of people in the community believe are there to keep everybody safe. They do their jobs as best they can. The motives in these cases rarely seem malicious. Almost nobody thinks the police went out and set out to murder somebody. So when they do things that seem to be mistakes, then people think, well, maybe some kind of discipline might be warranted. But to send an officer in prison because he's trying to do his job? That seems to be, to a lot of people, seems to be excessive.

MARTIN: And if people have been watching this cable series about John Adams, one of the key points in the John Adams - early in the - even before there was a country, was involved the defense of British soldiers who fired upon civilians during the Boston massacre. And they were acquitted. I mean, that just seems to be sort of part of it. Is there a sort of, a sense that unless officers are acting maliciously, that they should be given the benefit of the doubt? Or does there have to be some sense of corruption involved?

Prof. BUTLER: Well, there has to be a sense that the officers crossed the line. Of course, the police have to obey the law, like everybody else. But you know, in a lot of these cases, Michel, just like the Sean Bell case, the facts are kind of murky. So if it's a simple case where an innocent man is - or a man who doesn't seem to have any kind of criminal involvement is shot many times, and there doesn't seem to be any justification, then I think in that case a judge or jury would be happy to convict.

But the facts are often a lot more murky. The victims in these cases don't seem to come with completely clean hands. The officers, you know, it's not like back in the day, where police officers were seen as just kind of racist and out to get somebody. So it's just a lot more grey than black and white.

MARTIN: And very briefly, this case went before a judge rather than a jury. And what would be the thinking there? What would be the strategy there? It is my understanding that was the defense choice. And why would that have worked in the officers' favor, if indeed it did?

Prof. BUTLER: A lot of the testimony in this case would be very emotional. Testimony from Mr. Bell's fiance, from his parents who are extremely sympathetic. Now there's also the fact that you had 50 bullets in this case. So to a lawyer, that fact isn't so relevant, because we know that when police shoot even once or twice, they shoot to kill. So the number doesn't seem that significant. But to a jury - then again, the emotion of the case, I mean, for goodness sakes, a victim on his wedding day shot 50 times. There was this sense that the emotion might sway the jury.

MARTIN: All right. Paul Butler is a Law Professor at the George Washington University Law School. He joined us by phone from Washington. Paul Butler, thank you so much.

Prof. BUTLER: Great to be here.

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