Yes, the mysterious death of Freddie Gray from injuries he sustained while in the custody of the Baltimore police has now become a certified Ethics Alarms Ethics Train Wreck. That honor was guaranteed once Baltimore’s mayor started stumbling over her words and meaning and then blaming others; when looters and rioters began burning down stores and a seniors home; when the finger-pointing began and when shameless Republicans started politicizing the riots, notably Texas Congressman Bill Flores (R-TX) who somehow reasoned that the Baltimore riots prove the dangers of gay marriage.
Most of all, a train wreck rating was guaranteed once the African-American activist response to Gray’s murder, inflamed by incompetent handling of the incident by the Baltimore police department, exactly followed the script of the Ferguson Ethics Train Wreck. Gray’s death was pronounced a murder and the police response a racist cover-up before all the facts were known or even knowable. Never mind: “Black Lives Matter” signs were paraded on the streets, and columnists and news reporters began telling the story as if Gray was—not might have been, not probably was, but was—just another in the long line of young black men murdered by the police. After all, we had the recent Walter Scott shooting, captured on video, to justify a presumption of racism and murder.
But a presumption of racism and murder, absent proof, is never justified. It isn’t allowed in court, and it isn’t ethical out of court. Never mind: that’s where we now are with Freddie Gray and Baltimore. Maybe this isn’t a new Ethics Train Wreck. Maybe it’s just the Ferguson Ethics Train Wreck, just rolling on.
As with Mike Brown (and Trayvon Martin’s death) , the underlying narrative of the protests over Freddie Gray’s death appears to be less certain than it originally appeared. The Washington Post reports that a prisoner who was in the police van with Freddie Gray says he could hear Gray “banging against the walls” of the vehicle, suggesting that Gray “was intentionally trying to injure himself.” The prisoner’s statement is contained in an affidavit that’s part of an application by the police for search warrant seeking the seizure of the uniform worn by one of the officers involved in Gray’s arrest. If that account has any credibility at all, it could result in a prosecutor’s legitimate refusal to indict any officers.
Already, the report has sparked new alleged eye-witness accounts asserting that Gray was injured during the arrest. The family disputes the Post’s account, although the family has no more information about what Gray did or didn’t do than you or I do. Commenters on websites and some pundits are pronouncing the account in the Post ridiculous….you know, like it was ridiculous to believe that “gentle giant” Mike Brown would charge an officer. The account may be untrue, but it’s not ridiculous. Trying to injure oneself may not be smart, but it’s not ridiculous to think Gray might believe it was a good idea. After what has been in the news the since Brown’s death, anyone, especially a young black man, arrested by the police would see the advantage of being able to claim police abuse. Gray was angry, he had been manhandled, and he had filed a dubious laws suit in the past. He was not, to say the least, the most honest of citizens, and he may have been brain-damaged. He could have tried to hurt himself, or aggravate an injury he sustained in the arrest. He might even have inflicted fatal injuries while doing so.
That doesn’t mean he did injure himself or even that he even tried. It does mean that at this moment, nobody knows for certain whether or not the cops killed Freddie Gray, and whether, if they did, it was racially motivated, accidental, intentional, or negligent. That would normally be for the justice system to decide, but for political, social, racial and cynical reasons, there is no way, no way at all, for this tragedy to be resolved justly or peacefully now. The protests and riots ensured that. Because the community, assisted by an irresponsible news media, has already made the decision that the cops were sufficiently guilty to demand indictment and trial, because the mob has delivered a verdict, only a few scenarios are possible, and none of them are good:
1. The Trayvon Martin scenario. Even though evidence is too weak and ambiguous to convict the officers of anything, charges are brought by a cowardly, politicized, unethical prosecutor. The officers, who may have been innocent, are widely tarred as racist killers. Their lives and careers are ruined. A fair jury assesses the evidence and acquits them, or a biased jury convicts them despite the lack of sufficient evidence. If there is an acquittal, it is attributed to racism, and anyone who argues that the decision was just under the law will be called a racist. There will be calls in high places for weakening the “innocent until proven guilty” standard.
2. The Ferguson Scenario. A courageous and as a result much-maligned and smeared district attorney decides that the protests and publicity have biased the process. He will not treat the accused officers as “ham sandwiches.” He is neutral before a grand jury, which assesses the contradictory evidence and witness reports. It chooses not to indict, sparking more urban unrest. The Justice Department, after official and unofficial comments impugning the city and its justice system, “investigates” for political advantage and to satisfy Al Sharpton, saying it is considering a civil rights charge—which the ACLU, and I, and many others, believe is double jeopardy.
3. The Rodney King Scenario. An indictment is brought in an atmosphere of fear of mob violence, and a trial finds the officers not guilty, causing riots, or a Justice Department indictment for civil rights violations is tried with jurors knowing that a not guilty verdict will burn their city to the ground. Either an appeals court overturns the resulting guilty verdict based on the fact that a fair trial was impossible once the mob had spoken, or the result stands as an example of how mob justice can warp justice.
I can imagine other variations, but the underlying truth in all of them is this: the justice system doesn’t work, can’t work and will never work in the current atmosphere of presumed guilt any time a black citizen is arrested and perishes in the process. Activists are creating a system of strict liability, which will make, and I think may be intended to make,law enforcement too risky to attempt when African-Americans are involved.
Whatever their intentions, the protesters and activists are not furthering the interests of justice by making measured, fair, unbiased investigation impossible. They are undermining justice, and advancing the interests of criminals. Nobody, including the worst killer, racist cops imagination could conceive, should be charged, tried or sent to prison because a mob pronounced them guilty beyond a reasonable doubt based on what other police officers have done to other victims.
The only way this terrible trend will cease is if a credible, trusted, courageous national African-American leader states what I just did in clear and compelling terms, and stops it.