The US takes great pride in a process that places two aggressive individuals in an oral contest. Each side makes claims, while trying to undermine the claims of the opponent. Then, spectators watching this contest vote to determine the winner. At the very end, an outcome is announced that usually has little or no relationship to the will of the spectators. In US politics, this process is called a "fair election". In US law, it is called a "fair trial".
Today we were shown what "fair trial" means when police are on trial for torture: brutally beating a 59-year-old man to obtain information from him (a driver's license).
In April 2005, the trial of Asian-American Palo Alto police thugs (as the prosecutor called them) Michael Kan and Craig Lee, charged with felony assault and misdemeanor battery for the July 2003 beating and pepper-spraying of African-American Albert Hopkins, ended with jurors split: eight voting for conviction, and four for acquittal. Today the thugs were allowed to plead no contest to disturbing the peace by unlawful fighting - an infraction. While the original felony charges carried a jail term of up to three years and would have banned them from police duty in California, maximum punishment for the infraction is not more than 90 days in jail, or a fine of not more than $400, or both. But they didn't even get that - they were allowed to walk free with no jail time and a $250 fine - free to return to police duty and continue beatings as usual.
According to the Chronicle, the Santa Clara County prosecutor Peter Waite claimed that this sent a strong message that police misconduct would not be tolerated. "I think that justice was served," Waite boasted.
One wonders if the eight jurors that voted to convict would agree. After they were held, virtually unpaid, for weeks and forced to sit through arguments that were often arcane, tedious, and mind-numbing - and then asked to analyze what they heard - they now must accept an outcome that rejects their will, and enforces the will of the dissenting minority. One wonders if the police that were willing to break with the tradition of silently protecting brutal police, and risked being ostracized by their department, in order to uphold the Constitutional and human right to freedom from unlawful seizure, would agree that justice was served. One wonders if county taxpayers would agree that justice was served by a very long and expensive mock trial, to convict police of the equivalent of a parking ticket. One need not wonder if Albert Hopkins would agree.
The DA defended the plea by pointing to the two successive hung juries in the Oakland Police "Riders" case. There are some obvious problems with this defense:
- It explains why the prosecution wanted a deal rather than retrial. It does not explain why the deal is in total opposition to the will of the jurors that were in the majority, by a 2-to-1 margin.
- In both the Oakland case and Palo Alto case, police were on trial for brutality. The similarity ends there.
In the Oakland case, jurors had to judge multiple incidents of brutality against persons who were often accused of crimes or had criminal records that the police attorneys could use to discredit them. The police on trial were veterans whose brutality was revealed by one rookie. That helped the defense argue that the rookie was really just a washout fabricating a story to cover his failure.
In the Palo Alto case, jurors judged a single incident of brutality against a person not accused of any crime, with no criminal record to be heard in the case. The police on trial were rookies whose crime was revealed by 4 veterans, each with over 15 years on the force. The police attorneys struggled in vain to defend a case that was essentially a no-brainer against their clients.
- The DA is setting an absurd policy, that has no logical basis: an unrelated trial in another county ended in two mistrials, therefore no police brutality case in this county will be tried more than once. How does this serve justice?
Meanwhile, the attorneys for the thugs found no need for any pretense of "justice": they were too busy gleefully rubbing the public's face in the farce. According to a Mercury News report, they correctly called the infraction "somewhat less serious than a carpool violation".
Others were less amused.
Attorney Joe Hopkins (Albert's brother) pointedly observed, "They might as well give them a vacation to Hawaii".
The Coalition for Justice and Accountability (CJA), a San Jose-based group advocating for justice and for changes in police practices, responded immediately with a press release. CJA member, Richard Konda stated, "The decision by the District Attorney to settle the case for an infraction is an outrage. The message of this decision is that there are two types of justice, one for the police and one for the everyday person. If Kan and Lee had not been police officers, surely the District Attorney would have retried the case and would not have plea-bargained the felony charges down to an infraction. Equal justice was not present in the courtroom today".
According to the press release, CJA plans to hold public officials accountable for their actions: "CJA intends to send a letter of protest to the District Attorney and to the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors regarding this travesty of justice".
Whether it's called a "fair trial" or a "fair election", it is clear that the process fails to serve the true needs of the public. It does, however, serve the needs of the elite by distracting people in fruitless exercises, in the hope that the public will never awaken to the reality that true power lies with us - not the elite.