The early Seventies were a rather turbulent time for race relations in America, and my hometown had its share of controversy. My memory is not the best in the world, but as I recall one of the most turbulent times came when three young blacks were prosecuted for the killing of two whites. At some point I represented all three of the defendants in this murder case. I started off defending the two who were initially arrested, and withdrew from the representation of one because I anticipated working out an immunity deal for the other client to testify against the gunman. My remaining client’s brother did not think I was defending her vigorously enough, and hired another lawyer. When the third defendant was arrested, I worked out an immunity deal for him to testify against the gunman. It was all rather straightforward, but local forces within the black community took the case as a cause celebre and organized marches and protests over the prosecution. As I recall, this was the beginning of a two year period of racial tension in my community.
I was an assistant state attorney when the tension came to a climax. Someone called the Sheriff’s Office with the warning that two deputies would be killed that weekend. This, of course, put all law enforcement on high alert, and there was much discussion of the threat leading into the weekend. Imagine my horror when I received a phone call early Sunday morning (or maybe it was early Monday morning) and the Sheriff’s Office dispatcher told me that two deputies had been killed. I immediately got dressed to go to the jail, but before I left I considered calling dispatch and verifying that two deputies had actually been killed. I vetoed that idea and headed for the jail, which was where dispatch was located, thinking that I could verify the call when I got there. When I got to the jail, I didn’t need to ask whether it was true. All it took was one look at the demeanor of the officers standing on the doorstep.
Thus began one of the worst nights of my legal career. I considered the officers who had been killed to be friends, and I had trouble functioning as I sought to do my duty as a prosecutor. I made a lot of mistakes that night, but fortunately I did nothing to compromise the case. It wasn’t long before we got word that a suspect had been arrested, and I left the scene to go to the jail to interview him.
Somehow the investigating officer maneuvered me into the position of being the interrogator when we talked to the defendant. The defendant confessed, and at the ensuing trial the defense attorney accused me of beating the confession out of him. Others who heard the tape recording of the confession criticized me for being too polite to the defendant. My response was "He confessed didn't he? I must have done something right."
There was one small glimmer of a silver lining to the cloud that was this case. The killing had nothing to do with the racial tension in the community. The defendant was a probationer from Orlando who was in our jurisdiction without permission of his probation officer. His biggest concern seemed to be that his probation was going to be violated and he was going to have to serve a five year prison sentence. That was why he shot and killed two deputies, because he didn’t want them to tell his probation officer that he was violating his probation.
The next week the Sheriff’s Office received another anonymous telephone call saying that more deputies were going to be killed, but that call—like the first—was bogus. It was the merest of coincidences that the first call had been made the week before a probation violator decided that killing two police officers was preferable to getting his probation violated. If any good can come out of such a tragedy, you would have to say that the easing of racial tension which followed the killings was good.
I want to point out one fact that might easily be overlooked in this story. The officers who made contact with the defendant arrested him peacefully. I have seen cases where suspects got arrested and carried to jail with black eyes, bloody noses, and split lips. The defendant in this case was completely unmarked. Some folks portray all law enforcement officers as neo-Fascist stormtroopers just looking for an excuse to abuse someone. The arrest made in that long ago case is strong evidence to the contrary.
Fast forward to today, when we seem to be having a recurrence of racial tension, most of which is aimed at law enforcement. Ismaaiyl Brindsley decided to act out on that tension by killing two law enforcement officers. He fled the scene with officers in hot pursuit and eventually killed himself. Note that the officers in pursuit did not avail themselves of the privilege granted them by Tennessee v. Garner, 471 U.S. 1, 105 S.Ct. 1694, 85L.Ed.2d 1 (1985) to “shoot to kill a fleeing felon.” Are New York Police Officers neo-Fascist stormtroopers? I think not. If any miniscule iota of good can come out of such a tragedy as this, perhaps it may be that it contributes in some way to an easing of today’s racial tension.