The usual roles were reversed during the recent trial of Chicago Police Cmdr. Glenn Evans for allegedly forcing his service revolver down the throat of Rickey Williams, putting a Taser to his groin, and threatening to kill him during an arrest in an abandoned building. The complaining witness was a young African-American man from an impoverished Chicago neighborhood. The defendant was a high-ranking Chicago police officer.
The two main components to the case were Rickey Williams’ first-hand account of the abuse and Williams’ DNA recovered from Evans’ gun.
The investigation — conducted by the notoriously inept Independent Police Review Authority — failed to establish the DNA on the gun was from saliva. This left the defense an opening. The defense lawyer showed that, during a scuffle, Evans and Williams had skin-to-skin contact. The defense theory was that when Evans touched his gun following that altercation, Evans might have unknowingly transferred Williams’ DNA from his own hand to the weapon.
As in most criminal cases, there were contradictions in Williams’ version of events. After telling an investigator that Evans used his left hand to force the barrel of the gun down his throat, Williams changed his story and said Evans used his right hand. Williams didn’t get the color of the gun right. And he wasn’t able to pick Evans out of a lineup — 15 months after the event.
Judge Diane Cannon blasted Williams in her ruling, saying he “taxes the gullibility of the credulous.” Even more remarkably, she said the DNA evidence (which the prosecutor colorfully described as not just a “smoking gun,” but a “smoking frickin’ cannon”) was “of fleeting relevance or significance.”
Judge Cannon didn’t bother to hide her disdain for Williams during his testimony. She pointedly refused to let Williams demonstrate in court what happened to him — a procedure that is routinely allowed. The judge herself repeatedly and aggressively questioned Williams.
Try this thought experiment. Imagine that Evans was the complaining witness and that Williams was accused of forcing the barrel of a revolver down the police officer’s throat. Further assume that Williams (like Evans has been) was accused on nearly 50 prior occasions of assault and battery. Can you imagine Judge Cannon refusing to consider evidence of those prior assaults? Can you imagine Judge Cannon angrily refusing a police commander permission to make an in-court demonstration of how the crime occurred? With that reversal of roles, would Judge Cannon have dismissed the DNA evidence as scarcely relevant?
We don’t think so. Instead, the judge would have afforded the complaining witness the courteous and deferential treatment that every such witness deserves. After all — particularly for a lay witness — it can be daunting to testify in a courtroom full of lawyers and reporters. Mistakes in testimony can happen in the glare of that spotlight.
Williams’ startling allegation about a gun being forced down his throat wasn’t made to fit the DNA evidence. Williams gave his account to IPRA the day after his encounter with Evans. The DNA results only surfaced later. And, if, as the defense theorized, Evans transferred Williams’ DNA to the weapon with his own hand, then why was Evans’ DNA not found on the gun? And why was there such a large amount of DNA recovered from the gun — too large an amount, the prosecution argued, to have been left by incidental contact?
For decades, members of the Cook County judiciary scoffed at the claims of the African-American men who were tortured by a different Chicago Police commander, Jon Burge, and his crew. The judges unquestioningly accepted the abusers’ sworn denials. Those judges, many of whom, like Judge Cannon, were former Burge-era prosecutors, rejected scores of motions to suppress confessions that Burge and his men tortured from their victims — confessions that their fellow prosecutors procured. And when it comes to police officers who shoot and kill African Americans, there is an unbroken history that reaches from the acquittals of the police officers who murdered Fred Hampton and Mark Clark in the 1970s to this year’s acquittal of the officer who fatally shot Rekia Boyd.
For too many years, a conspiracy of silence has protected police from accountability when they abuse, torture or even kill those they are sworn to protect. Unfortunately, too many Cook County’s judges who sit in the criminal courts have been in the middle of that both as prosecutors and later after they ascended to the bench. Sadly, the acquittal of Glenn Evans must be viewed in this harsh light.
Locke E. Bowman is executive director of Northwestern law school’s Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center. G. Flint Taylor is a founding partner of the People’s Law Office.
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