Prosecutors Face Challenges Convicting Police Officers Involved In Shootings
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
It's rare for a law enforcement officer to be convicted of homicide for shooting someone while on duty. A new NPR data analysis finds 2,400 people have been killed this way in the last two and a half years. The vast majority of those cases were found to be justified. About 20 officers did face charges. And of those, six have been convicted. NPR's Martin Kaste brings us a closer look at the challenges in prosecuting police. And a warning that this report contains strong language.
MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Two weeks ago, a Minnesota court acquitted the cop who killed Philando Castile. And Castile's mother, Valerie Castile, was understandably upset. She went on Facebook Live to vent.
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VALERIE CASTILE: I don't know where they got them [expletive] jurors from, but that was some straight up [expletive].
KASTE: What she couldn't accept was how the jury could buy the defense's argument that the cop, Jeronimo Yanez, had reason to be afraid of her son during that traffic stop. Her son had politely said that he was carrying a permitted firearm and was reaching for something when the officer shot him.
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CASTILE: Oh, yeah, he was in fear for his life. [Expletive] You shouldn't be no police officer if you're going to handle yourself in that manner.
KASTE: And in these cases, this is the key question - when does an officer's fear justify a shooting? Jeff Noble is a retired officer and an expert witness on police use of force. He consulted for the prosecution in Minnesota. He says juries tend to sympathize with cops.
JEFFREY NOBLE: Police officers are under incredible stress, the police shootings and police officers being killed. And that's what's in the jury's mind, is that, well, these are the people who are coming to help me.
KASTE: And that sympathy is often buttressed by jury instructions. Those instructions usually refer to a 1989 Supreme Court ruling called Graham v. Connor, which says that you can't judge a cop with 20-20 hindsight. In the Yanez case, for instance, the jurors were told that police officers are often forced to make split-second decisions, and that those decisions should be evaluated based only on what the cop knew at that moment.
NGOZI NDULUE: It's very clear that under the current legal standard it's almost impossible to actually convict somebody.
KASTE: Ngozi Ndulue is senior director of criminal justice programs at the NAACP. She says jury instructions can end up excusing unacceptable fears. For instance, in Minnesota, Officer Yanez had convinced himself that Castile resembled a black robbery suspect.
NDULUE: There is more fear of African-Americans, and in particular African-American men, that is not justified, that's just based on who they are. So in these cases, a fear and an unreasonable fear can end up being someone's death sentence.
KASTE: Prosecutors are starting to pay more attention to this. They're pushing back against jury instructions that they consider too generous to the officers. And despite the continued rarity of police convictions, Andy Savage believes the legal ground is shifting. He represents Officer Michael Slager, who was caught on video killing Walter Scott in South Carolina.
ANDY SAVAGE: The default position used to be, let's say 15, 20, 25 years ago, that the suspect must have done something that initiated the lethal force.
KASTE: Now, he says, the default position is why did the officer use that lethal force? There's more burden now on the cop to justify his actions.
SAVAGE: And if it's a racial disparity between the officer and a suspect, it's even getting a closer look.
KASTE: And the system is still finding its way. Jeff Noble says this whole idea of prosecuting police officers is still new. The prosecutors are still learning things. For instance, they're figuring out from some recent cases that it may be a mistake to bring murder charges against a cop because the juries seem more open to manslaughter or other lesser charges. As the prosecutors' expertise grows, Noble thinks we will see more officers behind bars. Martin Kaste, NPR News.
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