Sunday, January 7, 2007

Keystone Kops? Not.

It's not easy to admit error. So I thought it was important to salute the police said they had the wrong men.

Boynton police acted properly in the deadly mall shooting case
By Howard Goodman | Commentary

A lot of people probably think the Keystone Kops are alive and well in Boynton Beach.
The town's police do seem prone to pratfalls:
Two men are arrested in the shooting death of a suspected gang member at the Boynton Beach Mall crowded with last-minute shoppers on Christmas Eve. It's one of the most public murders in recent memory.
After a couple of days they release one of the men, a purported accomplice, saying he had no hand in the killing of Berno Charlemond, 24, though he was involved in a fight with him moments before the fatal shots were fired.
And on Wednesday, they release the second man, the supposed shooter, saying they no longer believe he pulled the trigger.
Investigators were spending the rest of the week looking for a third man. The new prime suspect.
Yes, it would be easy to poke fun at the cops.
But I'm not going to do it.
Instead, I give them credit. They've gone to the trouble of making sure they've got the right guys -- even at the risk of embarrassment by owning up to a flub.
As a reporter in Philadelphia in the 1990s, I saw more than one case in which men were serving long prison terms on convictions that looked plenty dubious, if not flat-out wrong, with the benefit of 10 or 20 years' hindsight.
When you pieced the facts together, you'd see that detectives apparently had latched onto a suspect early in their investigation, and then cherry-picked evidence and coerced witnesses to prove their early pick was right.
That's not happening here. And while it's frustrating to watch suspected gang members sprung back to the streets, it's good to see that the Boynton police are more interested in seeking out and charging the guilty, rather than just clearing the case.
The Boynton police aren't giving out many details about their change of mind. But I'm guessing it wasn't made lightly.
After all, a probable-cause affidavit written the day after the shooting, presents a pretty persuasive scenario for arresting 21-year-old Jesse Cesar on a charge of first-degree murder.
It mentions an unnamed "off-duty firefighter who pointed out the defendant as being an active shooter" and who "has given a sworn taped statement and chosen Cesar out of a six-person photo lineup."
"Several other officers," the affidavit states, "have given sworn taped statements that Cesar was seen firing a firearm in there [sic] immediate direction with knowledge that police were on the scene."
Sounds pretty tight.
But if we've learned anything from countless re-runs of Law & Order, or from the Japanese film masterpiece Rashomon, it's that different witnesses or participants will recount vastly different versions of the same event. What we think of as shared reality can be a splintered thing.
According to Boynton police spokeswoman Suzanne Gitto, the ongoing investigation brought up new facts. She wouldn't say what those were. But they must have soundly contradicted the initial reports.
Once the lead investigator, Chris Crawford, realized that the facts no longer supported the grounds for Cesar's arrest, he had an ethical and legal obligation to reveal that to the court.
Michael Edmondson, spokesman for State Attorney Barry Krischer, said this kind of reconsideration goes on all the time in law enforcement. But it's usually behind the scenes. The highly public nature of the mall shooting made the process visible this time, he said.
"We surely are not surprised by the outcome," he said. "Quite often we see this in the development of a case."
It does seem awry that a suspect in a high-profile shooting is either held for murder or let go, with no apparent middle ground. That's why it's good to see that, at Sheriff Ric Bradshaw's invitation, the feds are joining the local fight against gang activity. With anti-racketeering statutes, more secrecy in investigations and better guarantees for protecting witnesses under the federal system, there's a far better chance of nailing bad guys around general circumstances involving murder, drugs and use of guns.
The Boynton police might look like they're fumbling. But they're trying to get the right result. That's more important than worrying about how smooth they look.

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