Extrajudicial Killing: Why Police Can Commit Legal Murder

November 16, 2017 By Barbara With

On November 8, 2017, 14-year-old Jason Pero was shot to death in his grandparent’s yard on the Bad River Reservation in northern Wisconsin by Ashland County Sheriff’s Deputy Brock Mrdjenovich.

Jason was home sick from school and in his grandfather’s front yard when Mrdjenovich shot him dead. The deputy was responding to a 911 call around 11:40 a.m that reported a male subject allegedly holding a knife while walking down the street. Only eight minutes passed from the time the call was received until the moment Jason was shot.

Three days later, the Wisconsin Attorney General’s office issued a press release, rife with misinformation (that Jason was 5’9″ and weighed 300 pounds when he was only 5’4″) and quoting most likely only what the shooter claimed—that Jason had a butcher knife and was “lunging” at the officer. Several eye-witness reports from friends and family at the time of the shooting contradict the DOJ statements. But the AG’s incomplete press release was picked up by news outlets around the world and in no time an erroneous public narrative about the incident was shaped.

If the goal of releasing the statement was justice, statements with law enforcement conclusions would not have been released until all the evidence would have been carefully collected and weighed, which would have taken weeks to months. More likely, the motivation behind the press release was to use the institution’s credibility to influence the opinions of potential jurors with the Sheriff Department’s version of the story in order to limit liability in an upcoming civil suit.

So begins another heart-breaking tragedy in an epidemic of killing by law enforcement officers taking place in the United States involving mostly people of color. Referred to as extrajudicial killing, it is the killing of a person by governmental authorities without the sanction of any judicial proceeding or legal process. The United State Torture Victim Protection Act defines it as:

A deliberate killing not authorized by a previous judgment pronounced by a regular constituted court affording all the judicial guarantees which are recognized as indispensable by civilized peoples.

According to the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, Native Americans are more likely to be killed by police than any other group, including African Americans. Native Americans are also three times more likely to be killed than white Americans.

Friends and family describe Jason was a soft-spoken, big-hearted boy who would not have harmed anyone. Jason’s grandfather described him as someone who “never had one mean bone in his body.” His mother, Holly Gauthier talked about Jason as “a big teddy bear,” that everybody loved him, and how much he loved his family.

Vigil for Jason Pero. Photo: Honor the Earth – Jaida Grey Eagle

So how and why do extrajudicial killings continue to take place?

The press release by the Attorney General’s office is the first step in normalizing what has become legal murder: controlling the narrative. A little-known right called Garrity enables officers to debrief with their employers without fear of incrimination. Also called the “48-hour rule,” anything the officers say during this two-day period after the incident cannot be held against them.

According to Amelia Royko Maurer, whose housemate Paulie Heenan was murdered by police in front of their home, “The justification given for this is to give their minds time to settle. This actually gives them time to, if they wish, talk to their union rep, lawyer, peer support, communicate with other officers who were on the scene, watch the news, call family. This time could be spent anywhere doing anything depending on the department and their ethical compass. The fact scenario of their official interview doesn’t have to match that of the story they gave while on the scene. None of this treatment nor the justification for it applies to any other witnesses. In fact, other witnesses are interviewed immediately no matter how traumatized or devastated they are.”

The 48-hour rule also allows them to get their story straight. According to Matt Masters, a veteran police officer whose son Bryce was tased in the chest for 23 minutes on September 14, 2014, KCTV originally reported that Bryce had an outstanding warrant for his arrest. However, the arrest warrant presented to FBI investigators was for a different plate number for a woman and a different car from a different county. On September 17, Independence police released a copy of a search warrant that listed a different probable cause—the smell of marijuana coming from Bryce’s car. “Whenever you see these officers come out with a use of force, whether it be a shooting or a tasering or a whatever, there are phrases that always go in those reports, that we’ve been trained to put in there,” Matt said. “And so many times that’s just like an ‘insert quote here’ in your report because that’s going to cover your ass.” Masters said that they begin with the desired outcome—that the officer rightly perceived his life with being threatened—and build the story backward from there.

Photo: Native Lives Matter

In this case, the DOJ report, released two days after Jason was killed, stated that Jason had a butcher knife, he was lunging at the officer, and he was larger and more powerful than the shooter. This was their “proof” of why the officer believed he was in imminent danger, thus justifying force and controlling the narrative.

Backing all this up are two Supreme Court cases that have laid the groundwork for legalized murder by law enforcement.

The first, Tennessee v. Garner, concerned Edward Garner, an unarmed black boy in Tennessee who was shot and killed by Memphis police in 1974. Like Jason, Edward was in the 8th grade. He was suspected of stealing a wallet with $10 in it. After years of pursuing justice, his father finally got his case before the Supreme Court in 1985. Despite ruling that it was unconstitutional to shoot a fleeing suspect, the decision actually opened the flood gates for what we are seeing today: cops getting away with murder. The sentence that undid the progress in the fight for justice reads:

“Where the officer has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a threat of serious physical harm, either to the officer or to others, it is not constitutionally unreasonable to prevent escape by using deadly force.”

The law becomes about what the officers believed in the moment. It does not matter if it is proven later that they really weren’t in danger.  If officers testify that they believe they were in danger at that moment, they are automatically exonerated. There is no way to prove they really didn’t believe they were in danger, short of producing written or oral evidence of the officers confessing otherwise.

The second case, Graham v. Connor, involved Dethorne Graham, a diabetic who was quickly leaving a convenience story after looking for orange juice to prevent an insulin crisis. The police officer saw him leaving quickly, determined he was robbing the store, pulled him over and beat him. Graham sued, and the court ruled that a police officer can only determine action based on what they see in the moment, not in hindsight. Therefore, since Connor believed Graham was robbing a store, even if though he wasn’t, Connor had the right to arrest him based on his mere belief.

Graham had told Connor that he was diabetic; it was an actual health emergency. Connor believed that Graham was lying, yanked from his car, broke his foot, cut his face, bruised his shoulder, and then dumped him in his front yard. His belief that he was being threatened justified his use of physical violence. And Connor could not be held accountable because he claimed he truly believed, in that moment, that Graham was lying and a threat. End of story.

Who are these arbitrators of the law who have been given the ultimate power of judge and jury in a moment’s notice and under pressure?

Brock is a 26-year-old white male, educated at Viterbo College, a small religious school in La Crosse where he excelled at track. He serves in the National Guard. He has been with the Ashland County Sheriff’s Department for one year. Like many of today’s civilian law enforcement officers, he has been trained with a military background.

The troubling aspect of military personnel becoming police officers is that these jobs are completely different. Active military and police are trained in dealing with threat assessments in different ways. Military personnel are trained to seek out the enemy and escalate the conflict in order to destroy the enemy; law enforcement is supposed to be more oriented toward problem solving and de-escalation. When law enforcement officers with military backgrounds get into conflict situations, their military training seems to prevail. Add possible PTSD, and suddenly a brown-skinned Native child looks like a “terrorist” who must be neutralized and deadly force is used.

So what about 14-year-old Jason Pero made Brock, a trained military man and track star, arbitrarily believe he was threatened enough to shoot him through the heart? According to the rushed press release, it was being lunged at by a kid with a butcher knife. And yet, a few years ago, a young man was reported to be under the influence of drugs and running around the reservation with a gun. A team of tribal law enforcement officers surrounded the man and convinced him to safely surrender his weapon. Bad River, however, lost funding for their law enforcement agency and now contracts with Ashland County for help. Deputy Brock Mrdjenovich responded to this call.

On December 14 the Ashland County Board will hold a special session to allow board members to discuss the matter, and also to allow members of the public to make three-minute comments to the board. County Administrator Jeff Beirl said that the community wants to identify problems and create solutions to prevent this tragedy from ever happening again. “I think it is of great value to listen to the community, to listen to the residents, to have the county board weigh in on it. To talk about the issues, but most importantly, talk about solutions.”

Meanwhile, the Pero family moves forward in their search for justice.

Photo: Disenfranchized Boyz, Facebook

 

 

 

 

 

 

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