Pubdate: Thu, 26 Oct 2000
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Copyright: 2000 The Washington Post Company
Contact:  1150 15th Street Northwest, Washington, DC 20071
Author: Marc Fisher


"There's something in our world that makes men lose their heads-- they 
couldn't be fair if they tried. In our courts, when it's a white man's word 
against a black man's, the white man always wins. They're ugly, but those 
are the facts of life. . . . The one place where a man ought to get a 
square deal is in a courtroom, be he any color of the rainbow, but people 
have a way of carrying their resentments right into a jury box."

- -- Atticus Finch, in "To Kill a Mockingbird"

We have come a long way from Maycomb County, Ala., in the 40 years since 
Harper Lee wrote those words. And we have a long way to travel.

Robert Horan has been Fairfax County's commonwealth's attorney for 32 of 
those years, and in that time, in all the cases in which a police officer 
has shot someone while on duty, he has charged the officer exactly zero times.

Maybe that doesn't add up to a pattern. Maybe each and every police 
shooting was justified. So let's set history aside and look exclusively at 
Carlton Jones and Prince Jones.

In this case of a Prince George's County police officer chasing an innocent 
man into Virginia and shooting him six times in the back, there is every 
sign that Horan studied the events with more than ordinary 
care--ballistics, blood work, interviews. Horan rightly ignored the public 
outcry and made his decision when he was good and ready.

"I know a little bit about what it takes to prove a case in court," Horan 
said. "If you can't prove it in the courtroom, you shouldn't be charging 
it. In my opinion, there is not sufficient evidence to charge Corporal 
Carlton Jones with a crime, and I will not do so."

This is not, you will notice, a ringing endorsement of the officer. 
Emptying your 9mm Beretta service pistol into the back of an unarmed 
citizen while you are out of uniform, in an unmarked car and without your 
badge is not exactly textbook police work.

Yet Horan says the officer had a right to follow Prince Jones's car because 
it looked like one that had been involved in a gun theft. Fine. And Horan 
says Prince Jones had no right to ram the police officer's car. True, but 
it's easy to understand why Prince Jones might have felt cornered, 
threatened, even in danger of dying.

But what could excuse the officer's decision to fire 16 bullets at an 
unarmed man? Even if Prince Jones had rammed the officer's car 16 times, 
the policeman's life was never threatened.

In police shooting cases, we give officers the benefit of the doubt, 
because they are trained and sworn and because they risk their lives for 
the rest of us. The police deserve no less. But it is no slight to say that 
some officers go overboard, and some with a regularity that demands 
punishment. In this case, a high-ranking local police official told me, 
"It's clear: If you're rammed, that's when you get the heck out of there. 
Nothing in that situation warrants shooting."

We have come far enough that these issues do not solely arise when a white 
officer shoots a black man. In this case, both men were black. But old ways 
of thinking die hard, and if this case is not strictly about race, it is 
indeed about what some police officers think of the people they are 
supposed to protect and what conclusions they draw based on instant 
impressions, such as the color of a man's skin.

Horan's governing principle appears to be his sense of how a jury might 
act. Usually, that's a good way for a prosecutor to sift through the 
ceaseless river of cases. But here, there is every reason to say, "Look, 
this officer went far beyond what our rules say police may do. Maybe he 
won't be convicted, but let's put it to the people."

When grown-ups failed to do the right thing, Harper Lee left it to the 
children to tell us what we look like.

"I think I'll be a clown when I get grown," said Dill. . . . "Yes sir, a 
clown. There ain't one thing in this world I can do about folks except 
laugh, so I'm gonna join the circus and laugh my head off."

"You got it backwards, Dill," said Jem. "Clowns are sad, it's folks that 
laugh at them."

"Well I'm gonna be a new kind of clown. I'm gonna stand in the middle of 
the ring and laugh at the folks."

Join me today at noon for "Potomac Confidential" at
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