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Police video helped Laquan McDonald’s killer get convicted, but it could have helped him get acquitted


What you’ll read today

  • Spotlight: Police video helped Laquan McDonald’s killer get convicted, but it could have helped him get acquitted

  • Will Alabama sheriffs finally stop diverting jail food funds to their own wallets?

  • Baltimore’s gun offender registry is a misfire

  • Police raise money by mocking bailouts (and have been doing so for years)

  • LA parents will no longer be hounded to pay for their children’s incarceration

  • San Diego district attorney bends facts to spread fear about new felony murder law

In the Spotlight

Police video helped Laquan McDonald’s killer get convicted, but it could have helped him get acquitted

In what was most likely the second-biggest legal story of last week, a jury in Chicago convicted former officer Jason Van Dyke of second-degree murder, an exceedingly rare conviction for a police officer. Many were not expecting the guilty verdict, despite seemingly clear video evidence that Van Dyke shot Laquan 16 times as Laquan, armed with a 3-inch pocket knife, walked away. He continued shooting after the 17-year-old was lying on the ground, dying. During the trial, “Officer Jason Van Dyke asked 12 jurors to trust his memory, not a widely circulated dashboard camera video, to know what really happened,” writes Mitch Smith for the New York Times. “The jurors chose the video.” [Mitch Smith / New York Times]

The jurors said they relied heavily on the video to reach their verdict, watching it over and over. “They were not swayed by Officer Van Dyke’s testimony that Laquan targeted him with a menacing stare, made a threatening movement with a knife and tried to get up off the ground after being shot. None of those claims were backed by the video.” During his testimony, Van Dyke sought to explain the gaps between the video and his story. “That video may not show it, but that wasn’t from my perspective,” Officer Van Dyke said when pressed by prosecutors about his decision to continue shooting after pausing briefly. “I was coming at it from a completely different angle.” [Mitch Smith / New York Times]

Even though jurors ultimately chose to believe their eyes over Van Dyke’s testimony, similar cases have gone very differently. “It’s worth remembering that the most famous video of police violence, the Rodney King video, recorded in 1991” did not lead to convictions, writes Ethan Zuckerman for the MIT Technology Review. “While the video showed the assault on King, it also showed him charging at officers after being Tased.” The lawyers for the Los Angeles Police Department claimed that this behavior justified the use of extreme force. Video of Eric Garner being choked to death by an NYPD officer, while he shouted “I can’t breathe,” failed to lead to that officer’s indictment. Shootings of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and Samuel Dubose, all caught on video, did not bring about criminal convictions. Officers involved in Sterling’s death weren’t even charged. [Ethan Zuckerman / MIT Technology Review]

Perspective matters. Videos that do lead to accountability are often civilian video, not official police video from dashboard cameras or body cameras. In 1981, an MIT grad student named Steve Mann started wearing a computer and a head-mounted camera throughout the day, he was thinking about a world in which cameras would become ubiquitous, where millions of people with connected cameras could collectively hold authorities accountable for abuses. He called this phenomenon “sousveillance,” watching from below. [Ethan Zuckerman / MIT Technology Review]

An interactive feature in the New York Times dramatically demonstrates the difference that perspective can make when watching video: what looks like a chaotic and violent encounter turns out to be a friendly dance. [Timothy Williams, James Thomas, Samuel Jacoby, and Damien Cave / New York Times] (Curator note: This link is worth a click.)

“It’s not the end-all, be-all,” said Milwaukee District Attorney John T. Chisholm, who used body camera video in the case against Dominique Heaggan-Brown, a police officer who fatally shot Sylville K. Smith last year. Chisholm said he would never have brought criminal charges in the first place without the video, but it was not enough for a conviction: Heaggan-Brown was acquitted. In that case, like many others, the same video was used for diametrically opposed purposes. “Slowed-down, frame-by-frame video was used to show that the suspect had no weapon when he was shot a second time,” according to the New York Times. “The same video, played at regular speed, revealed a scene that was swift, confusing and chaotic, a boost to the defense.” And when videos do not fully show critical moments, jurors must fill in the blanks, which many do in favor of police officers. [Julie Bosman, Mitch Smith, and Michael Wines / New York Times]

In many cases, a “calculated, rather than an impulsive, crime can be the difference between ‘lethal injection and a lesser sentence.’” John Lewis was found guilty of murdering a police officer in 2007 during a robbery and was sentenced to death, but his lawyers appealed, arguing that slowing down the video evidence used in the trial made jurors more likely to believe that the killing was premeditated. This argument failed, but research shows that perhaps it should have succeeded. One group of researchers has found that when jurors are shown slowed-down footage, “they are more likely to think the person on screen has acted deliberately,” writes Homa Khaleeli for The Guardian. “While a slow-motion replay may allow jurors to see what is taking place more clearly, it also creates ‘a false impression that the actor had more time to premeditate’ than when the events are viewed in real time.” In a series of experiments, scientists showed participants footage of an attempted armed robbery in which a shop assistant gets shot; those who watched the footage slowed down were three times more likely to convict. [Homa Khaleeli / The Guardian]

Another study asked whether screen size affects jurors’ perceptions of information presented during trials. The researchers manipulated video image size as well as defendant emotion level presented during testimony, the defendant-victim relationship, and the strength of the evidence. Larger screens were found to accentuate what was presented––they made strong evidence seem stronger and weak evidence seem weaker. They conclude that attorneys presenting video images should recognize that jurors “may evaluate videotaped trial evidence differently as a function of how video evidence is presented.” [W.P. Heath and B.D. Grannemann / Behavioral Sciences & the Law]

Stories From The Appeal

Etowah County Sheriff Todd Entrekin infamously pocketed $750,000 in jail food funds and subsequently bought a $740,000 beach house. [Etowah County Sheriff’s Office]

Will Alabama Sheriffs Finally Stop Diverting Jail Food Funds to Their Own Wallets? The governor is making sheriffs sign an oath promising they won’t misuse funds meant to feed jail prisoners. But some sheriffs are already pushing back. [Lauren Gill]

Baltimore’s Gun Offender Registry Is a Misfire. Established to track anyone convicted of a gun-related offense, the registry has proved to be both racist and ineffective in reducing gun violence, former BPD officer Larry Smith writes. [Larry Smith]

Stories From Around the Country

Police raise money by mocking bailouts (and have been doing so for years): Last week, police officers held a “Cops for Cancer Tour de North’s jail and bail fundraiser.” The event at the Houston branch of the Bulkley Valley Credit Union raised over $11,000 for pediatric cancer research. Photos show officers pretending to arrest other cops, putting handcuffs on them and leading them into cages to raise money for pretend bail. A Twitter search showed that events like these from various cities, mocking bail fundraisers, go back to at least 2010. [Houston Today]

LA parents will no longer be hounded to pay for their children’s incarceration: Los Angeles County supervisors voted this week to no longer collect fees once charged to families of incarcerated young people for their incarceration, thereby “ending a practice decried by criminal justice advocates as an unfair tax on minorities and an ineffective means of rehabilitating young people who commit crimes,” according to the Los Angeles Times. The county’s probation department has been directed to “stop accepting payment and cancel nearly $90 million in juvenile detention fees.” A statewide ban on a range of court costs and fees charged to parents and guardians of children in the juvenile justice system was enacted earlier this year. Almost every state allows youth or their families to be charged for costs of the youths’ detention, according to an analysis by the Juvenile Law Center. “It is simply not worth the cost and effort to the county—and more importantly, not worth the cost to families—to continue with these collection payments,” said Hilda Solis, one of the motion’s sponsors. [Nina Agrawal / Los Angeles Times]

San Diego district attorney bends facts to spread fear about new felony murder law: Under a new law, Senate Bill 1437, the felony murder rule in California will be pared back. If a defendant in a crime did not kill, intend to kill, or did not act with reckless indifference to human life, that person cannot be found guilty of murder, even if he or she took part in a crime that resulted in a death. See our 10/2 edition. “This new law goes too far. And I am concerned about public safety,” said San Diego District Attorney Summer Stephan. She pointed to the 2016 stabbing death of Hugh Pettigrew, for which three people were convicted, even though prosecutors could not prove who actually committed the murder. Under the new law, the district attorney’s office will have to show every person had the intent to kill. [Artie Ojeda / NBC San Diego]

But on Twitter, one advocate found fault with the prosecutor’s example.

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