|U.S. Judge Madeline Haikala|
For more than two years, the news has been littered with cases of police brutality. When gunmen in Dallas and Baton Rouge recently opened fire on cops, it added a new element to the equation -- citizens fighting back against a law-enforcement apparatus they see as out of control.
Still, when it comes to cops vs. citizens, the playing field hardly is even. A recent study showed that 97 percent of officers in violence cases never face criminal charges. An Alabama case from earlier this year shows that, in the rare case where a cop winds up in criminal court, he is likely to benefit from judges' dubious rulings.
Consider U.S. Judge Madeline Haikala, in the Northern District of Alabama. She cited a case that is more than 30 years old to throw out criminal charges against Alabama officer Eric Parker in the body slamming of Sureshbhai Patel, a grandfather from India. Unfortunately for Haikala--and citizens who trust her to apply the law appropriately--the case does not remotely support her decision to grant the defense's Motion for a Judgment of Acquittal.
In fact, the case law in question--United States v. Bell, 678 F. 2d 547 (5th Cir., 1982)--does not even address the issues raised in Patel. We've shown that Haikala repeatedly failed to view the facts in favor of the non-moving party (the prosecution) -- and the government's hands are tied because the Double Jeopardy Clause prevents an appeal. Now, we have a second glaring reason Haikala should be overturned on appeal -- if one were allowed.
How severely did Haikala butcher the law in the Patel case? Her 92-page opinion is a hatchet job from start to finish, and let's consider the implications. It allows a thuggish police officer to go free on a criminal charge for which the evidence strongly suggests he is guilty. Worse than that, Haikala unilaterally tried to ensure that Parker will not even have to face a third jury--one that might be capable of reaching a verdict after two previous juries deadlocked.
That seemingly leaves Patel, and the public, with zero chance for justice at the federal criminal level -- even though Parker still faces a civil complaint. (A state misdemeanor criminal charge has been dropped.)
How does Haikala attempt to justify unlawfully throwing out the criminal charges against Officer Parker? The answer is found, for the most part, on pages 51-52 of her ruling. (See full opinion at the end of this post.)
The standard for considering a motion for entry of a judgment of acquittal requires the Court to draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the Government. When evidence is subject to multiple interpretations, some of which favor the Government and some of which favor the defense, the Court has construed the evidence in the light most favorable to the Government. However, when evidence is unfavorable to the Government, but is not ambiguous, the Court is not required to ignore it. When critical gaps appear in the Government’s case, the Court is not required to turn a blind eye to them. On the contrary, the law requires the Court to consider the objective reasonableness of Officer Parker’s use of force within the totality of the circumstances. The Court has viewed the full expanse of evidence concerning the use of force and is left with the firm conviction that the evidence concerning use of force in this case is not adequate to support a unanimous verdict of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. When, as here, “a hypothesis of innocence is sufficiently reasonable and sufficiently strong, then a reasonable trier of fact must necessarily entertain a reasonable doubt about guilt.” United States v. Bell, 678 F.2d 547, 550 (5th Cir. 1982) (Anderson, J., concurring) aff'd, 462 U.S. 356 (1983). Viewing the relevant evidence in the light most favorable to the Government, the Court has determined that that evidence could not be accepted by twelve jurors as adequate and sufficient to support the conclusion of Officer Parker’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
The Bell case had nothing to do with a Motion to Acquit. It was about sufficiency of the evidence upon which a jury found Bell guilty of violating the federal bank-robbery statute. It also was about the findings of a jury, not the unilateral ruling of a judge. Here is the key section from Bell:
Bell also argues that the evidence is insufficient to support his conviction unless it excludes every reasonable hypothesis of innocence, on the theory that if there is such a reasonable hypothesis the jury must necessarily have had reasonable doubt of his guilt. . . .
We hold that the appellant has incorrectly stated the standard of review for sufficiency of the evidence. It is not necessary that the evidence exclude every reasonable hypothesis of innocence or be wholly inconsistent with every conclusion except that of guilt, provided a reasonable trier of fact could find that the evidence establishes guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. A jury is free to choose among reasonable constructions of the evidence. Viewing the evidence presented in this case and the inferences that may be drawn from it in the light most favorable to the government . . . we conclude that it was sufficient to allow a reasonable jury to find that Bell altered the endorsement on the check, deposited it to his account, and thereby was enabled to take and did take $10,000 with intent to steal from the care, custody, control, management or possession of Dade Federal.
What did the court decide in Bell?
(1) A JURY is free to choose among reasonable constructions of the evidence;
(2) The JURY's decision to convict Bell was reasonable and supported by sufficient evidence.
What did the Bell court say about a judge's ruling on a Motion to Acquit? Not one thing. So how does that case support Haikala's ruling, as she claims? It doesn't.
Are you scratching your head? You should be. And by the way, welcome to the legal world of Alabama.
(To be continued)
Previously in the series:
(1) Here's the flip side of police-brutality cases -- July 13, 2016
(2) Federal judge in Alabama shows how cops tend to get favorable treatment in court -- July 18, 2016