Saturday, April 27, 2013

In The Aftermath Of Boston, Eags Considers The Law & Disorder In Both Perugia & NYC

Eags' paean to Boston policing overlooks the police fusillade at the boat holding a critically wounded (by his own hand) Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the surviving suspect in the Boston Massacre II, in a Watertown, MA backyard. How that incapacitated suspect survived that field of fire is amazing. However, after 102 hours, Boston law enforcement lost command and control in that moment. Nonetheless, Eags points out that Boston policing was far superior to that in Perugia (Amanda Knox) and The Big Apple (Central Park 5). If this is a (fair & balanced) critique of poor police strategy, so be it.

[x NY Fishwrap]
Good Cops, Bad Cops
By Timothy Egan

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The 102-hour sprint from the moment two bombs went off in Boston to the capture of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in Watertown, Mass., should be capsulized and sent to every law enforcement academy. Tireless culling of video images, apt use of tips and technology, and quick action by a fleet of cops showed both the risk and the range of good police work.

By contrast, we are reminded this month of the terrible price of bad police work. Amanda Knox’s book about her ordeal as a prisoner of coincidence for a murder in Italy and a documentary about five innocent teenagers framed for the Central Park rape case present a blueprint of official malpractice.

It goes like this: Conduct an all-night interrogation until the suspect is tired, broken and confused, producing a “confession.” Release the narrative to a predatory press, setting the story in stone before an alternative view can take hold. Ignore all physical evidence that doesn’t fit, including the absence of any physical evidence.

In the Knox and Central Park cases, the press was truly toxic. And it was almost as bad after the Boston bombing. An online witch hunt, coupled with the tabloid glare of Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post, targeted innocent bystanders in Boston. Restraint, admirably, came from the authorities — they were the ones to call for an end to reckless speculation.

Many people, mostly in Europe, still doubt Knox’s innocence in the 2007 murder of her roommate, Meredith Kercher, in Perugia, Italy. And many people, despite a confession by the real Central Park rapist and DNA evidence tying him to the crime, still suspect the five boys who served time for the near-fatal assault and rape of a 28-year-old jogger in 1989.

But with the release of Knox’s book, Waiting to Be Heard (2013), and the airing on PBS of the documentary “The Central Park Five,” these ordinary people are finally having their say regarding the extraordinary circumstances that cost them their freedom. What’s remarkable is how similar the missteps were by law enforcement and their abettors — bad cops aided by bad reporters.

The biggest mistake made by Knox, a college student with no criminal record, was volunteering to talk to the police. She had no lawyer, and her Italian was barely serviceable. The police had no credible evidence tying her to the murder of her roommate. But over the course of a long night, Knox was slapped on the head, she says (denied by authorities), and goaded into signing a statement in formal Italian that placed her near the crime and implicated an innocent man.

There was so much blood, and so many fingerprints, in the small bedroom where Kercher was slain by knife attack that even cops of the Keystone type could solve the crime. And in fact, when those prints, that blood and much more physical evidence lined up exactly with a man, Rudy Guede, who had fled to Germany shortly after the murder, the police had their culprit. Guede was later convicted, though he claimed he only had sex with Kercher and wasn’t in on the murder.

But because the authorities in Italy had invested so much pride and publicity in their earlier Knox story, setting off a global tabloid firestorm on her sex life by releasing details of prior intimacies, they still had to go ahead with a trial of Knox and her boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito.

They put forth a series of absurd motives. This student in her junior year abroad was a leader of a “satanic ritual,” it was said early on. In court, she was called a “she-devil.” When these medieval claims were met with derision, the motive was changed again: it was suggested that Knox killed her roommate because the young woman from Britain was a messy housemate.

In trial, Knox testified that the police called her “a stupid liar,” and repeatedly hit her. She said she signed a statement while “in shock” and was unsure what it meant. And in her book, she blames herself for being na├»ve and for behaving “like a lost, pathetic child” while under harsh interrogation.

Her conviction, and sentence of 26 years, was overturned in 2011. Knox went home to Seattle and resumed her studies at the University of Washington. The case against Knox, the appeals court found, was “not corroborated by any evidence.” Any evidence.

Sadly, the Italian Supreme Court last month sent the case back for another trial, because of procedural errors, though it’s unlikely Knox will ever be returned to Italy.

These details are fairly well known. But when you line them up with the Central Park case, you see a pattern for how people can be convicted despite the absence of motive or physical evidence. It happens far too often, in cases that rarely get any attention.

The Central Park suspects, five black and Latino teens, were accused of raping a young woman — for a debauched thrill, like Knox. None of them had ever been in trouble with the law before — like Knox. They were questioned all night, without a lawyer, and ultimately told the police what they wanted to hear — like Knox. They signed a confession that had almost no relationship to the actual facts of the crime — like Knox. And once DNA evidence came back, and showed no tie to the boys, the prosecution stuck to their case.

As Knox was a she-devil with a kitchen knife, the kids in New York were a “wolf pack” that went on a “wilding” spree. The police controlled the story from start to finish, feeding a tabloid fantasy to unquestioning reporters, as detailed in the film by Ken Burns, David McMahon and Sarah Burns. (Full disclosure: I was featured in a Ken Burns film on the Dust Bowl last year.)

The convictions were vacated in 2002, after a confession by a serial rapist with a positive DNA match to the crime. But by then, the boys had spent more than a decade of their lives behind bars. Knox was jailed for four years; at times, she says in the new book, she considered taking her own life.

At the core of both cases is hysteria — sexual, in the case of Knox, racial for the Central Park five. Institutional pride, and the inability to admit an error, were the other two big factors.

The police procedural in Boston shows what can happen when the authorities keep an open mind and drag a wide net. They need the press, occasionally for help, but more often to keep them honest. Ω

[Timothy Egan writes "Outposts," a column at the NY Fishwrap online. Egan — winner of both a Pulitzer Prize in 2001 as a member of a team of reporters who wrote the series "How Race Is Lived in America" and a National Book Award (The Worst Hard Time in 2006) — graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in journalism, and was awarded an honorary doctorate of humane letters by Whitman College in 2000 for his environmental writings. Egan's most recent book is The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America (2009).]

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