When the Police Lie to Convict the Guilty

Gene Weingarten, the Washington Post columnist, wrote about his recent experience as a juror. It was a trial of a man accused of selling $10 of heroin to an undercover officer. Weingarten professed to be annoyed that such a small amount would justify an arrest and trial; he’s just wrong about that. Dealing a dangerous prohibited drug is still dealing, no matter what the amount. I know this is the kind of case that gets the legalize-drugs-so-we don’t-put-so-many-people-in-jail crowd all self-righteous, but “a smidgen of heroin dealing” still supports a destructive social problem, and law abiding citizens don’t deal even a little smack.

That’s not really the issue here, however.

Weingarten was convinced that the defendant was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. He was also convinced that the police were lying. He decided that if he got the chance to deliberate on the case (he was an alternate), he would make a stand against cheating by the police and the exploitation of dishonesty by the prosecutor, and vote for acquittal.

Weingarten calls what he planned to do “jury nullification”, which is when a jury acquits a guilty defendant contrary to the law in the interest of a greater justice. This was not jury nullification. It is called being a responsible juror. As a matter of law, the testimony of a lying police officer can’t prove the guilt of a client beyond a reasonable doubt, because it is not legitimate and legal evidence. A juror may personally be convinced of an individual’s guilt, but “beyond a reasonable doubt” is an objective standard, not a subjective one. If the key witness, in this case one of the arresting officers, is lying, then there must be doubt. Weingarten writes that other officers supported the lie; they were lying too.

It doesn’t change the fact that jury nullification or not, Weingarten’s reasoning was ethically valid.

“I believe they [the police] feel themselves to be warriors fighting the good fight against bad people who have the system stacked in their favor. I believe they knew they had the right guy and were willing to cheat a little to assure a conviction. I believe they had the right guy, too. But the willingness to cheat, I think, is a poisonous corruption of a system designed to protect the innocent at the risk of occasionally letting the guilty walk free. It’s a good system, fundamental to freedom. I think a police officer willing to cheat is more dangerous than a two-bit drug peddler.”

Correct. Manufacturing evidence to convict a guilty man is exactly as wrong as doing so to convict an innocent one. This is the kind of corruption explored in the Orson Welles 1958 classic,“Touch of Evil,” in which a veteran  police detective, whose instincts are uncanny, begins cheating to make certain the criminals he knows are guilty get convicted even when legitimate evidence is lacking. What Weingarten witnessed was the same touch of evil—the authorities distorting the system, using perjury and deception to try the guilty, rather than the fair trials that are their absolute right as citizens. A justice system that tolerates this practice is not just. It is dangerous.

Weingarten never made it onto the jury, but the defendant, to Weingarten’s surprise, was acquitted anyway. We should hope that the result occurred not because the jury members thought a little heroin dealing should slide by, but because they know that a defendant, even a guilty one, should never be convicted in America by lies and manufactured evidence.

In either case, their actions preserved the integrity of the system.

This time.

7 thoughts on “When the Police Lie to Convict the Guilty

  1. Whether or not the alternate juror’s judgement with respect to the relative harms of letting a petty guilty defendant go free or allowing lying law enforcement officers to corrupt the system was accurate, jurors have a duty to fairly consider the evidence and render a judgment to the standard required.

    Any dissimulation by a prosecution witness must surely raise doubt. But I can’t necessarily agree that a juror should discard all other evidence in an attempt to send a message to the police. I’m thinking that would be a violation of his oath as a juror.

    So while I am sympathetic to this man’s desire to punish the police for their misbehavior, I’m not sure throwing your sworn oath to the four winds is the most ethical way to do it, unless you find that the reasonable doubt introduced by the lies of the witnesses overwhelms all the other evidence.

    I suppose what we have here is an ethical conflict between the juror’s sworn duty and the failure of the prosecution to present a fair case by allowing lying witnesses to testify. If so, I would tend to support the juror, but with the recognition that if he is convinced beyond a reasonable doubt of guilt even considering the detrimental effect of the lies, it would indeed be a jury nullification verdict.

  2. I think a crucial point was missed in the previous reply. If you find that the prosecution has used a perjuring police officer as a witness, what else is a lie? If the prosecution will tolerate a police officer perjuring themself on the stand, will they fabricate evidence, falsify forensic evidence, or coerce a confession? Once they are found to be untrustworthy, why should you trust them about anything else?

  3. Many officers fool themselves into believing that they can lie under oath, falsify evidence, or withhold exculpatory information as long as they are working to convict a criminal. They believe that the ends justify the means — a very dangerous mindset for those of us in law enforcement.

    As soon as you lose the public’s trust, you lose all credibility and become ineffective. Trust is the fuel that drives community policing and coactive relationships forward. Lose it and you have lost everything.

    However, there are many that hold true to the ideals of professional integrity and genuine character. To those who are rising to the challenge of moral leadership, we applaud and support you…!

    Sheriff Ray Nash

    • That’s an important point, often overlooked. When I was a prosecutor, I found that most of the police officers were truthful—especially the young ones. Allen Dershowitz and others have battered the public with the idea that “all police lie,” and it is widely believed. But a few members of any profession can destroy public trust in all of it.

      • I was arrested for domestic violence. But in reality I was the victim. The police hid evidence, my broken glasses, and lied on a number of issues. All of which are relevant to the case. At the preliminary hearing the officer stated that the alleged victim did not have any pictures taken since there was no camera in the entire precinct building. In deposition he stated that he did have a female deputy take photos, but they were misplaced. He stated that he saw me strike the woman through the window so he entered without knocking. The security cam shows him knock, so that was a lie. The victim stated that no pictures were taken. She herself stated that the officer was present when she filled out her statement, but he swore under oath he was not there. There were a lot more lies plus he withheld evidence and told the victim to destroy evidence. This whole thing has ruined my life. Thanks for destroying my life and the lives of my children.

  4. Take a look at the Rampart division controversy in LA. I have no direct knowledge, only what I read in the media (and we know how accurate they can be). But the allegations are that they falsified evidence, lied under oath, and planted dope on known gang-bangers and drug dealers. They rationalized it as the ends justified the means. But it is a false economy. In the long run it undermines trust. And damages relationships, ruins reputations and destroys careers.

    Sheriff Ray Nash

  5. Jonesville michigan officer lied on the stand and prosucution allowed it , also the judge allowed it …This is not the fair system it is supposed to be ..Its the duty of the prosecution not do do such things , but as in hillsdale county michigan all is corrupt , they lie and cheat and the judges are all aware of the facts . You have no constitutional rights in hillsdale , michigan ……just the facts

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