Miles verdict is hardly worth celebrating

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Last week's split verdict in the Jordan Miles case was not a vindication of the three officers who beat him, no matter how cleverly their lawyers try to spin it.

After many days of difficult deliberation, the eight jurors agreed with the defense that the three officers had not maliciously prosecuted Mr. Miles.

The conflicting testimony confused the jurors, so they weren't able to come to a unanimous verdict about two other charges: whether the three undercover officers used excessive force against Jordan Miles when they arrested him on Jan. 12, 2010, and whether he had been falsely arrested in the first place.

After testimony and evidence that included photos of Mr. Miles' battered face, the jurors weren't able to piece together a narrative that reconciled the conflicting stories. It will be up to a future jury to decide who's lying, based on the preponderance of evidence that will be presented at that time.

Within minutes of the mixed verdict, the defense lawyers were crowing in front of news cameras while promising eventual and total vindication of their clients in the eyes of the law. Because it is in the nature of lawyers to do victory laps at the slightest provocation, they also decided to wolf down a bigger slice of the verdict's pie than they were entitled to.

Of course, none of this is really shocking in a town where the criminal justice system reinforces the notion that it is never legitimate to second-guess law enforcement.

The jurors did their best with the case, but they were asked to operate within a conceptual void. There's no tradition of blind justice in Pittsburgh, where the testimony of police officers is never treated as anything but God's own truth. If you can remember the last time a jury here ruled against a cop in a conflict with an ordinary citizen, you're doing better than most.

In the 254 years that Pittsburgh has been five years behind the times, there are probably cases of ordinary citizens who were wronged by the cops and prevailed in court. If those cases exist -- and I'm not saying that they do -- they would be the exception that proved the rule.

In an environment as culturally conservative as Western Pennsylvania's, asking a jury to rule against police almost doesn't compute. Smoke and fire would billow out of a jury's collective ears before that happened.

No one wants to believe that criminal justice is an oxymoron, so we go out of our way to pretend that police don't enjoy an overwhelming advantage over citizens when they take the stand. Think about all of the people you grew up with who later became cops. They were good people, no doubt, but they lied as much as you did. Apparently something happens at the police academy that makes them incapable of telling whoppers in police reports or in court.

The citizens who make up local juries know that police are just as capable of manipulating the truth as politicians, bankers, lawyers, truck drivers, teachers, priests, fast food vendors, even journalists -- but only cops are assumed to be telling the truth 99.9 percent of the time that they're on the witness stand. This is an absurd and untenable bias.

I'm from Philadelphia, where the assumption that officers always tell the truth vanished a long time ago. A cop in Philly had better tell the truth, because jurors are usually smart enough to sniff the lies out and punish accordingly. Fortunately, those juries aren't sentimental about anyone or anything.

Jurors in Philly recently convicted one of the Catholic archdiocese's highest-ranking officials for reassigning a suspected predator priest to a new parish. That heartless bureaucrat will be in prison for many years as a result. Police in Philly see powerful authority figures going to jail all the time, so they never assume they'll be given the benefit of the doubt by a jury.

For whatever reason, a healthy skepticism about police testimony doesn't exist here. If it did, Jordan Miles would be able to prevail in court by asking a few simple questions: What did I do to deserve this? If this happened to one of your loved ones, would this be just? Why can't you do the right thing and apologize?

Three highly trained undercover officers claim that the reason they're facing a civil suit is because Jordan Miles is exaggerating his injuries. They argue that Mr. Miles was solely responsible for the injuries he suffered at their hands. They want to be innocent bystanders in the bloody, brutal drama they initiated that night.

tonynorman

Tony Norman: tnorman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1631. Twitter: @TonyNormanPG.


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