Cops can do no wrong.
Rarely does a grand jury — or any law enforcement agency investigating possible criminal police behavior — find fault with an officer in Lee County.
Howard L. Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, says indictments against cops disappear almost like magic.
“The magic words are: ‘I have reasonable fear for my safety,’” says Simon, state ACLU director for 10 years.
Poof! Goodbye indictment.
“And if he says those magic words, it looks like there’s a pass on this thing,’’ Simon says.
The latest pass went to Fort Myers Officer Joseph Martinez.
Martinez shot and killed Ernest L. Weston, a mentally disturbed Fort Myers man, at C Street and Delaware Avenue on Feb. 2 after he, Sgt. Fred Dunaway and Officer Glenn Eppler responded to a shooting.
Witnesses set the scene for disaster by incorrectly telling the officers Weston, 41, had a gun. The cops said Weston ignored their commands and continually went to his waistband, making them believe he had a gun. None was found.
A grand jury decided last month Martinez, a five-year veteran, acted within the law when he killed Weston.
“It is crucial to consider all of the evidence in any case before forming an opinion, thereby refusing to accept the words of a few, whom in this case, were not present that evening,’’ says Cecil Pendergrass, president of the local Florida Police Benevolent Association and a Fort Myers police corporal, about critics of police officers.
“The job of the police officers is to take Weston into custody, not to execute him,’’ Simon says. “A situation that ends with his murder is not a successful outcome. It was bad policing, malignant policing.’’
Execute is a strong word, but it is not an exaggeration.
Martinez shot Weston 71⁄4 inches below the base of his neck. A foot higher, it resembles an execution-style killing.
“When you’re 1 to 2 feet away from somebody who is lying face down — who already has been shot twice — how difficult would it have been to cuff him and bring him into custody?’’ Simon asks.
Martinez shot Weston in the stomach and abdomen from 7 to 10 feet away before burying a fatal slug in his back, according to Dr. Robert Pfalzgraf, deputy chief medical examiner.
Pfalzgraf says grand jurors did not ask him where Martinez was standing for the last shot.
That revelation brought back Simon to Fort Myers on Friday, where he and local advocates continue to push for a civilian police review board.
“I don’t blame the grand jury,’’ Simon says. “They are ordinary citizens. They may not be legally trained. I think the focus goes to the state attorney’s office.’’
Simon wonders if the state brought forward all evidence so the grand jury could make an informed decision.
Samantha Syoen, a spokeswoman for State Attorney Steve Russell, says the grand jury — whose proceedings are secret — received a fair and accurate presentation of evidence.
But Simon says that if grand jurors didn’t ask the medical examiner about the shooter’s proximity to the victim, and the state did not present same evidence, the process is defective.
“I think the grand jury deserved to know that information,’’ Simon says.
The Weston case was a hot potato for the state from the get-go. That’s why Russell, who calls a grand jury “the conscience of the community,’’ tossed it to grand jurors. By doing so, he took his office off the hook for a decision.
Simon says the unnecessary last bullet could have affected the grand jury’s decision.
“A police officer might have been indicted, and then the state attorney’s office would have been charged with the responsibility of prosecuting that police officer,’’ Simon says. “It raises very, very troubling questions about why crucial information would not have been available.’’
Again, because proceedings are shrouded in secrecy, we don’t know what evidence was presented to the grand jury.
Yet we know the medical examiner wasn’t asked a pertinent question.
It’s no secret a skillful prosecutor can lead a grand jury like a team of horses to a preferred decision for the state.
“Does (Russell) want the job of prosecuting police officers if they were indicted — and what that means in this community?’’ Simon asks. “And, frankly, what that means is bullying by police unions and their likely retaliation against him the next time he’s up for re-election.’’
Simon says he doesn’t know if the shooter-to-victim evidence would have made a difference to grand jurors, but he questions how a community can have confidence in fairness of the investigation.
“A guy is essentially shot and killed in the back — executed — by a nervous officer,’’ he says. “Then a grand jury gives him a pass on the killing because he claimed reasonable belief of fear for his safety.
“If there is an incident that calls for an investigation independent of the criminal justice system and independent of the police department, this is it.’’
Cops can do wrong.
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