Friday, October 30, 2015

October 30, 2015 - Cop Accused of Manslaughter Receives Federal Immunity

Back in 2013, a man named Larry Jackson, Jr. was shot and killed by a police officer. The tragedy occurred after Jackson visited his local bank, which was the target of a bank robbery earlier that day. By all accounts, Jackson was not involved in that robbery, but he was confronted by police and ultimately ran away. The police officer pursued Jackson, caught him, and ultimately killed him in the ensuing altercation. The police officer insists his gun discharged by accident, while Jackson's family contends it was intentional--noting that Jackson was shot in the back of the head, "execution style" in the words of the family's lawyer.

Additionally, it may not surprise you to learn that Jackson was an unarmed black man, and the police officer involved was a white officer named Charles Kleinert.

While there are several things that make this case stand out from other police violence incidents, perhaps the most notable reason is that the officer was going to be prosecuted for manslaughter. Manslaughter is a lesser charge than murder because it does not require intent, but it is still very uncommon in these cases. According to the Washington Post, this was one of just 54 prosecutions over the 10 year period dating back to 2005. And this week, before the state's trial even took place, a federal judge stepped in to grant the officer federal immunity, effectively canceling the trial.

The Washington Post  has a good write-up on this story that contains some interesting details, but it lacks the level of outrage this story should inspire. Even so, the article is worth checking out.

The Post summarizes the key argument of the cop's defense attorneys' as follows:
But Kleinert’s legal team argued that the shooting was accidental and that, because he was a member of an FBI task force that he was entitled to ‘Supremacy Clause immunity’ — a defense that argues that because the Constitution is the supreme law of the land, a federal officer who at the time reasonably believes his actions were necessary to the performance of his federal duties is immune from state criminal prosecution.
The article also notes that this idea of Supremacy Clause immunity dates back to 1889 and originated under very different circumstances than the case in question. But let's set those details aside. The right question to ask here is whether immunity could ever be justified. And the answer is no.

The reason for this is that our system already gives tremendously favorable treatment to cops as it is. And this is true in many different ways--from media coverage that tends to disparage the victim and lend more credence to the official story from the police department to the inherent conflict of interest in having co-workers investigate and prosecute each other. What is perhaps even more interesting, is that the applicable legal standards give cops significant discretion over when to use lethal force. And in the case of prosecution, historical Supreme Court rulings have had the effect of granting more weight to the cop's version of events, thereby making a successful prosecution less likely.

Now, a plausible case can be made that the above state of affairs is how things should be. Cops have a dangerous job, and so perhaps they should be afforded more leniency when they make mistakes. But even if you subscribe to that idea, you still have to acknowledge that some limits. Perhaps cops should be granted a wide range of discretion in deciding when to use lethal force. But when those limits are clearly exceeded, as they appear to have been in this case--which involved cartoonishly commandeering a random person's vehicle and shooting a random bank customer in the back of the head--it must be possible to hold those cops accountable. The prosecutor in Austin was trying to do that in this case, and the federal government has prevented it from doing so.

The system we have already grants most cops immunity by default; granting them immunity by law is a dangerous and alarming new development.

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