Warehouse K
Tipping The Scales
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Do Police And Courts Generate Injustice?


By James Donahue 


I have expounded over the years on the price of justice in America. Even though guaranteed by the Bill of Rights, justice for the poor is a fleeting thing that is rarely attained because of the high cost of lawyers and involvement in the court system.


If there can be justice, it is generally available only to the wealthy man who can afford the smarter lawyer. If that lawyer is clever enough, the scales can easily be tilted against fairness and balance.


It struck me while working as a news reporter and sitting in on the trial of a man charged with shooting his neighbor's dog, that there are times when the system also can be used by vindictive neighbors, police and even prosecutors to hurt the innocent.


I covered the trial because the case struck me as something out-of-the-ordinary. A man was going on trial because he insisted that he was innocent of a felony crime of torturing and maiming his neighbor's golden Labrador retriever. What could he have done, I thought, to have tortured and maimed a dog to a point where his action would be considered a felony, punishable by possible prison?


As the story unraveled in court testimony, this is what I learned.


The man (we will call him Vincent) said he was preparing for guests on a nice spring day and was out in his back yard using a leaf blower to clean the patio for an outdoor barbecue. He heard someone knocking loudly on his front door and walked around the house. A police officer was standing at his front door.


The officer said he was investigating a report of a shooting of Vincent's neighbor's dog and wanted to ask some questions. Vincent cooperated at first, asking what happened and expressing shock and alarm that the dog, named Angel, had been hurt. He said he knew the dog well. "He is my friend," Vincent testified. "He always comes to me when he is out."


The officer pressed Vincent, saying that another man in the neighborhood witnessed the incident and claimed that he personally saw Vincent shoot the dog. He attempted to get a confession. Vincent denied any wrongdoing, said the neighbor was mistaken, and that he didn't even own a gun. He said he became agitated because the officer refused to leave and retained him on his porch for about 20 minutes.


The officer later returned with a warrant for Vincent's arrest.


In a personal interview, Vincent said he went through weeks and months of private hell because of the charge. He hired a pricey lawyer from out of the area and demanded a trial, even though the prosecutor's office attempted to get him to accept a plea bargain on a reduced charge. He said he wanted a jury trial "because I didn't do it. I wouldn't go to all of this trouble (and expense) if I was guilty."


The defense lawyer did his job well. He put Vincent on the stand to tell his side of the story. An assistant prosecutor then drilled him fiercely, attempting to break his story. But Vincent stood firm.


The defense noted that the only evidence the police had was the observation by a neighbor who said he thought he saw Vincent walk up to the dog kennel, point a rifle over the side of the wire, and shoot the dog. The dog was later found to have a pellet from a pellet gun lodged in its leg. It was removed by a veterinarian and the dog limped for a few months, but recovered.


Vincent said he did not own a pellet gun. Not only this, but the police failed to produce such a weapon as evidence. In fact, the police didn't even bother to get a search warrant to look for such a weapon in Vincent's house.


The lawyer noted that Vincent was accused by his neighbors, but nobody even asked him about the incident before calling the police. He suggested that the dog may have been struck by a stray pellet fired from somewhere else in the neighborhood.


Vincent was found innocent by a jury.


The damage to his life, however, may never be resolved. He paid dearly in personal grief, in the cost of his high-priced lawyer and the time lost sitting in court. Whether related to this incident or not; he also went through a divorce.


In yet another odd case, a 28-year-old rafting guide was arrested by a Colorado sheriff’s department because he rescued a 13-year-old girl who tumbled off a company operated raft into Clear Creek.


The man was charged with obstructing government operations because he found and rescued the girl on the bank of the creek after she had been missing for nearly an hour. What he obstructed was a police rescue unit that had been called to the scene but was not yet in the water to conduct a search.


That the guide found and rescued the girl after she successfully swam to the river bank, and was waiting there for help, seems to have been the wrong thing to have done in the eyes of the police. For the rest of us, it appears that the guide did the right thing.


We find something troubling about the way some police officers are thinking these days. It seems they have assumed an authority role and act as “enforcers” of law rather than the old concept of “keepers of the peace” that we older folks fondly remember.