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Friday, August 19, 2016

A jury could have found that Officer Eric Parker willfully violated Sureshbhai Patel's civil rights, but Judge Madeline Haikala took it out of jurors' hands

Sureshbhai Patel
(Fifth post in a series)

Why did U.S. District Judge Madeline Haikala throw out criminal charges against Alabama police officer Eric Parker in the vicious body slamming of Sureshbhai Patel, a grandfather from India? It certainly is not because Haikala's finding is well grounded in the law; we've shown in multiple posts that it isn't. (See previous posts at the end of this post.)

The law strongly suggests this case should have gone to a third jury after the first two deadlocked, that the key issue was a matter for jurors to decide. But Haikala did not allow that to happen.

Our research suggests Haikala's reasoning might best be summed up this way: Parker had to make a split-second decision about how to handle Patel, and his actions therefore could not meet the willful component required in a criminal civil-rights-case under 18 U.S.C. 242. The government had to show that Parker acted willfully -- that he had a specific intent to deprive Patel of his right to be free from excessive force --  and the split-second nature of the interaction between Parker and Patel makes it impossible for the government to meet that burden.

Here are Judge Haikala's own words on the subject, from page 90 of her 92-page opinion:

The evidence here reveals that Officer Parker made a split-second decision in a rapidly evolving situation rather than a premeditated decision to use violent force. . . . The Court does not mean to suggest that a single, split-second decision can never arise to the level of a constitutional violation so egregious that it supports a finding of intentional conduct. The record in this case simply is not strong enough to eliminate reasonable doubt. For that reason, the Court grants Officer Parker’s renewed motion for judgment of acquittal.

Haikala is being disingenuous here; she actually IS suggesting that an officer almost never can be held criminally accountable, at the federal level, if he acts in a stressful, harried situation. More importantly, Haikala ignores the full legal meaning of the word "willfully" in Section 242 cases.

That's strange because Haikala cites the full meaning of the term, upon which the Patel case largely hinges, on page 53 of her opinion:

“A person acts ‘willfully’ for purposes of section 242 when he acts with ‘a specific intent to deprive a person of a federal right made definite by decision or other rule of law,’ or ‘in open defiance or in reckless disregard of a constitutional requirement which has been made specific and definite.’” United States v. House, 684 F.3d 1173, 1199-1200 (11th Cir. 2012) (quoting Screws v. United States, 325 U.S. 91, 103, 105 (1945)).

As you can see, it's not just a matter of whether Parker acted with "specific intent." It also is a matter of whether he acted with "reckless disregard" of a constitutional requirement.

We invite you to view the video below and ask yourself, "Did Parker act with reckless disregard for Patel's rights when he clearly used a leg swipe to knock the older man's feet out from under him, causing him to land head-first on the ground, becoming partially paralyzed and sustaining injuries that required spinal fusion surgery?"

As Haikala acknowledges on page page 89 of her ruling, "willfulness generally is a question that a jury must resolve, and jurors generally are tasked with the responsibility for assessing the credibility of witnesses." United States v. Feliciano, 761 F.3d 1202, 1206 (11th Cir. 2014).

Multiple expert witnesses testified at trial that Parker's leg swipe is not among the techniques usually taught, or approved for use, in law enforcement. A jury clearly could have found that Parker's use of an improper technique constituted "reckless disregard," even though he acted in a split-second fashion.

So why did Haikala ensure that a third jury would not hear the case, after the first two had deadlocked? The answer to that question remains unclear, but the judge's actions certainly are not supported by law.

(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

(3) Judge threw out charges based on case that does not support her findings -- July 29, 2016

(4) Record indicates officer lied about three key issues in Patel brutality case -- August 5, 2016


Anonymous said...

Is the press in India sound asleep, like ours here in U.S.? They should be all over this story. I thought they had something like 10 million newspapers in that country. Where are they?

legalschnauzer said...

I've contacted several Indian newspapers, especially those with editions in U.S. Had no response. Across the board, the MSM is terrible at analyzing judicial rulings. In fact, they are worse than terrible; they just don't do it. They take an opinion, read 4-5 key paragraphs, and write their stories without ever bothering to see if the judge got it right or not. That's one reason judicial corruption thrives in our country.

Anonymous said...

This should be a lesson to Americans who think they have a right to jury trial. Judges take matters out of jury hands all the time, especially in civil cases. I think there will come a time when the courtroom trial will be a thing of the past.

Anonymous said...

Who appointed Haikala to the bench?

legalschnauzer said...

Obama. I think she went on the bench in 2013.

legalschnauzer said...

You make a profound point, @10:44. You can have an outstanding civil claim, but a judge can still grant a motion to dismiss or summary judgment -- both cut you off from presenting your case to a jury. Particularly pernicious is relatively new case law called Twombly and Iqbal that alleged sets up a "plausibility" standard for getting past a motion to dismiss. Both Twombley and Iqbal are horrible law, written in nonsensical language, and judges routinely misinterpret both, especially Twombly. These two cases cut like a knife through the right to a jury trial, and most Americans have no idea what they are about. This is the kind of "law" you get when you have a "conservative" court with clowns like Scalia (now dead, thank God) and Thomas on it. These cases are designed to help corporations screw people at the dismissal stage, before any discovery has been conducted.

Anonymous said...

How many shots should the prosecution get to prove their case? Do we keep Parker on trial in perpetuity until a jury returns a verdict?

Hung juries are a rarity in most courts. At the state (all states combined) level, the hung jury rate is 6.2%. At the federal level, it's 2.5%.

And based on the research I have read, there are consistent themes to why a jury will fail to return a verdict. They are weak evidence, problematic deliberations, and jurors' perception of unfairness. What might have changed if this case was tried again?

legalschnauzer said...

All valid questions, @2:33, and I've pondered a few of them already. FWIW, here are some thoughts:

(1) I could find nothing in the law that limits how many shots prosecution should get. I guess it's up to judge's discretion. If Haikala thought three trials was too many, she should have written a one-page opinion and said that. It also would have been helpful if she had said something like, "In this district, we allow two trials, and that is it. Our belief is that three or more trials do not serve the public interest." Of course, she didn't say that, which makes me think there have been some cases that have gone to three, four, or more trials. If that's the case, would be interesting to know what those were, and why this one was deemed somehow different.

(2) Interesting figures on hung juries. Perhaps the first two juries deserve more criticism than the judge. If they were properly instructed on "willfully" issue -- and that's a big if -- it's hard to imagine that reasonable jurors would vote to convict. As regular readers know, judges can pull jury instructions out of thin air. If Haikala did not give proper instructions on "willfully," that could explain the hung juries. I mean the whole incident was caught on video.

(3) A. Weak evidence? It was right on camera; B. Problematic deliberations? I certainly could see that, especially along race lines; C. Unfairness? A man is walking down the street, not bothering a soul, and cop breaks his neck. If someone thinks that it is unfair for the cop to be held accountable, God save us all, in my view.

(4) I wonder how long the two juries were allowed to deliberate before deadlocks were declared. Were they given enough time? Could they have reached a verdict if the judge had hung in there the way Mark Fuller did on Siegelman/Scrushy case. If I remember correctly, Fuller said we are going to stay here until the dawn of the dead in order to get a verdict. What kind of language, if any, did Haikala use?

I think certain powerful forces did not want a criminal conviction, and they used dubious jury instructions and a short-circuited trial process to accomplish that goal.

Certs said...

My mouth fell open when I read this sentence from the judge's ruling:

"The record in this case simply is not strong enough to eliminate reasonable doubt."

Is she on crystal meth? The entire incident in this case was caught on video. It's undisputed that Mr. Patel was doing nothing but walking down the sidewalk. It's undisputed that Officer Parker used an unauthorized leg sweep that caused partial paralysis for Mr. Patel.

If that record isn't strong enough, then we should do away with any statute that could put a cop on trial for civil-rights violations. No cop ever will be convicted because it's hard to imagine a stronger record than this one. We might as well give cops carte blanche.

Robby Scott Hill said...

The Alabama Bar has no respect for the right to trial by jury. I'm pleased to see this blog surviving the retirement of Keith Norman. No doubt the world will probably be a much more dangerous place for folks like us with energetic, young leadership at the heart of the beast. The old guard pretty much failed to come up with a permanent solution to shut you up. You need to watch your back because now that the Boss Hogg generation is gone, you may be facing off against people who are actually capable of getting things done.

e.a.f. said...

why did the judge through out the charges? because she could and it wasn't in some one's interests to have the trial go ahead. It is always about the money and power. The lack of a trial most likely saved some one a load of money and the power of the police was "protected". After all it wasn't anyone the state cared about whose life was destroyed.

As many sit by and watch this happen, they really ought to think, what if this happens to me? Who will defend me? How will I get a fair result in the process?