The prosecution of Officer Weekley: A chilling effect?


A jury was unable to reach a verdict in the trial of Detroit Police Officer Joseph Weekley accused of shooting 7-year-old Aiyana Stanley Jones. Unfortunately, the rescheduling of a new trial begs the question of whether there is a double standard when it comes to police justice.

Officer Weekley led the raid in search of suspected murderer Chauncey Owens. After entering the home of the suspect, Weekley’s gun discharged killing Aiyana as she slept on the living room couch. Weekley was charged with manslaughter and reckless discharge of a firearm causing death.

Weekley said the child’s grandmother reached for his weapon, which she denied. That turned out to be the sticking point that resulted in a hung jury.

By any measure, this is a tragic incident. Everyone can empathize with the family of the young victim and their desire for justice. I’m not in a position to determine who deserves justice. Facts and conclusions are always debatable in the face of so such emotion.Unknown

I question, though, whether this is another instance in which a white police officer (Weekley) is prosecuted for killing a black citizen (Aiyana) when black officers have killed Detroit residents pretty much with impunity.Unknown-1

The case that quickly comes to mind is the 1990s death of Malice Green. Less than 24 hours after Green, a black resident suspected of possessing drugs, was bludgeoned to death with heavy metal flashlights, then-Police Chief Stanley Knox suspended without pay every officer involved in the incident. So swift was the chief’s action that it was widely interpreted as convicting the accused before all the witness statements were submitted. Then-Mayor Coleman Young immediately branded them “murderers.”

Officers Walter Budzyn and Larry Nevers were tried and convicted of second degree murder. Another officer, Robert Lessnau was charged with assault with intent to commit great bodily harm but was acquitted. All three officers were white, but Chief Knox dismissed any implication that race had anything to do with his decision.

There are, of course, differences as well as similarities in the Malice Green and Aiyana Jones cases. Arguably, a case was brought against Budzyn, Nevers and perhaps Weekley to counter the potential for public outrage and violence that might have erupted in the black community. Is a different standard applied in deaths in which the officer and the victim are black?

I wrote for The Detroit News during the Malice Green trial and reported on numerous cases in which black officers had committed fatal assaults on citizens. The actions of these cops rarely made the news or resulted in a public outcry. The few who faced prosecution almost always beat the rap.

It has yet to be shown conclusively that the trial of Officer Weekley was unfair or motivated by a bias against or toward white cops. The racial makeup of his jury, for example, only included one black male. Was that a factor in the mistrial?

The danger is that such prosecutions could have a chilling effect on how police officers carry out their responsibilities. If they suspect they don’t have support from the public for the dangerous work they are called upon to perform, it could be ruinous to the city’s already delicate social bonds.

In the meantime, it would be unwise for anybody to jump to conclusions. Too much is at stake. No matter how it turns out, residents of Detroit should understand just how valuable an asset an effective police department is. All too often we ask cops to go into some of the city’s worse neighbors and root out some of society’s most menacing predators. Sometime accidents happen.

Detroiters deserve reassurance from all parties – from Prosecutor Kym Worthy who headed up the Malice Green trial to impaneled juries — that the administration of justice is not shaded by color or the politics of the moment.



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