IN THE final analysis, it boils down to this: Eli McCoy wasn't one of us.
You may recognize McCoy's name, or he may have vanished from your memory. On Thanksgiving Day 1999, McCoy was making a mid-morning trip to the store in a neighborhood that is probably not like ours. Its residents are black and working class. Eli was running an errand for his father, Elton McCoy.
Police say Eli and another youth snatched $20 from a woman. When confronted by police, the two ran. Eli was cornered in a back yard. Kenneth Dean III, a city housing authority police officer, shot Eli three times when the youth refused to keep his hands up. The 17-year-old had no weapons. A state medical examiner ruled that a bullet in Eli's left hand indicated he had it in his pocket when shot.
Enter lawyer A. Dwight Pettit, who filed a lawsuit on behalf of Eli's relatives. Pettit brought forth witnesses who said that Eli was on his knees with both hands raised when Dean confronted him. The boy was talking to Dean, smirking at him, saying he had done nothing and asking Dean if he was going to shoot him.
The medical examiner's ruling that Eli had his hand in his pocket when he was shot was not irrefutable fact, Pettit contended, but an opinion. He convinced the jurors that the state medical examiner didn't conduct the proper tests to conclude exactly where Eli's left hand was when he was shot. The examiner got the news that the youth's hand was in his pocket, Pettit said, from police, eight of whom were in the room with him when he conducted the examination.
"There is no scientific evidence," Pettit told the jurors, "to support the medical examiner's conclusion."
The jury agreed. As the month of May came to a close, they ruled Dean had shot McCoy with malice and awarded Eli McCoy's survivors $7 million. But we all knew, we had to know, that somewhere along the line Elton McCoy wouldn't collect. He and his boy ain't one of us. Somewhere along the line, we knew, someone in the judicial system would reduce the amount of the judgment, if not toss it out altogether.
It happened July 11. Baltimore Circuit Court Judge Stuart Berger ruled that Dean hadn't acted with malice. The award is now $400,000. Eli and Elton McCoy don't deserve more. They're not one of us -- the law-abiding ones, the decent ones, the ones in the middle class with the money and who live in the "right" neighborhoods.
To further drive home that point, consider these cases.
In December, five police officers in Orange, N.J., were found guilty of violating the civil rights of Earl Faison, who died in their custody after being beaten and pepper-sprayed. A judge recently reversed the conviction of two of them.
Last month, Maryland's Court of Appeals ruled that former Baltimore police Officer Dorian Martin, convicted of stealing $300 from a Hispanic immigrant, should get a new trial. The "credibility of the chief witness," the court ruled, was questionable.
Less than a year before, the same court overturned the conviction of Baltimore police Sgt. Stephen Pagotto in the shooting death of Preston Barnes who, like Eli McCoy, was unarmed.
In July 1997, Michigan's Supreme Court overturned the conviction of Walter Budzyn, a Detroit police officer, in the beating death of crack addict Malice Green. The court figured that since jurors had seen the movie Malcolm X during breaks in the trial, their impartiality was compromised.
There's a pattern here, one that also reared its head in the trial of the four officers charged with fatally shooting African immigrant Amadou Diallo in 1999. (The judge in that case ordered jurors to put themselves in the shoes of the cops, not the dead guy.) That pattern is this: Cops in trouble with the law almost always get a break somewhere along the line in the judicial system. If they don't get it at the district or circuit court level, they'll get it at the appeals court level. But they will get it.
And they'll get it because judges -- who on a conscious level are probably as fair-minded a lot as you can get -- on a subconscious level have built-in prejudices and preferences. They know who's in the club, and who's not. They know the ones among us who are supposed to get the breaks, and the ones who aren't.
Michael Austin is a not a guy who's supposed to get the breaks. Nor are Gary Washington and Reginald Curbeam. All three are black men from East Baltimore's impoverished neighborhoods. All three have been convicted of murder. All three maintain their innocence. In all three murder trials, the state's case rested on the testimony of one eyewitness. In each case, the eyewitness has recanted.
The Court of Appeals has not rushed forth to overturn the convictions of these men -- to say, as they did in Martin's appeal, that "the credibility of the chief witness was a central issue in the case." No, the three remain in prison, put there by a justice system that sent them up not so much on the evidence, nor even because of who they are. These men are in prison because of who they are not.
They ain't one of us.