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Judge Acquits Chicago Police Officer in Fatal Shooting

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By Christopher Coble, Esq. on April 22, 2015 3:53 PM

A Cook County judge brought a police officer's manslaughter trial to an abrupt end on Monday, acquitting the officer of all charges. The acquittal means that the officer, Dante Servin, probably cannot be re-tried for the killing of Rekia Boyd. Servin had been the first Chicago officer to face a trial for a fatal shooting since 1997.

Essentially, Judge Dennis Porter the judge said the prosecution failed to prove Servin acted recklessly, and therefore could not be guilty as a matter of law. This ruling walks a legal fine line that has angered many who followed this case specifically, and the issue of police officers shootings generally.

There are quite a few issues at play here that have left both the public and trained attorneys scratching their heads. So let's see if we can separate them out and explain what the court was thinking.

Murder v. Involuntary Manslaughter

In any homicide, prosecutors must decide the level of culpability of the accused, and the corresponding criminal charge. For instance, first degree murder applies to an unlawful killing that is intentional and premeditated. Meanwhile, involuntary manslaughter refers to a killing that is accidental, but the result of reckless or negligent actions.

In some cases, involuntary manslaughter is considered a lesser included offense to murder. This relationship can affect charging and plea bargaining. Often, prosecutors will offer the defendant a deal to avoid trial and possibly a harsher punishment by pleading guilty to the lesser offense. If a case does go to trial, prosecutors will sometimes charge a defendant with both crimes -- if the jury finds the defendant guilty of the lesser offense, but not guilty of the greater offense, the jury is permitted to consider a conviction on the lesser offense. These choices in charging and plea bargaining referred to as prosecutorial discretion. 

In this case, prosecutors charged Servin with involuntary manslaughter, and were required to prove that he acted "recklessly." In dismissing the charge, Judge Porter said that Servin could not have been reckless, because the shooting was intentional:

Illinois courts have consistently held that when the defendant intends to fire a gun, points it in the general direction of his or intended victim, and shoots, such conduct is not merely reckless and does not warrant an involuntary-manslaughter instruction ... The act of intentionally firing a gun at some person or persons on the street is an act that is so dangerous it is beyond reckless; it is intentional, and the crime, if any there be, is first degree murder.

Because prosecutors failed to show Servin was reckless, the judge dismissed the involuntary manslaughter charge.

Strange Take, Strange Timing

As many have pointed out, this was an odd and unexpected ruling, for a couple reasons. First, prosecutors often will undercharge tough cases, in the hopes that the lesser charge will be easier to prove. For example, prosecutors in this case may have thought proving that Servin intentionally killed Boyd, even without premeditation, would be too difficult, whereas proving Servin acted recklessly would be easier (especially since Servin claims he was firing at another person who was allegedly reaching for a gun).

But Judge Porter is saying that prosecutors should've charged Servin with murder, since, even if he didn't intend to shoot Servin, his act of pointing a gun and firing was intentional. Never mind that getting even getting a trial, much less a conviction for a police officer in a civilian shooting is rare enough, but a murder conviction? Also, legal scholars have generally been worried about aggressive prosecutors overcharging defendants. If Judge Porter's ruling holds, prosecutors won't likely risk undercharging again.

Also, Judge Porter's ruling was in response to the defendant's motion for a directed verdict. This means that halfway through the trial, after the prosecution has completed its case, the defense asks the judge to rule that there is not enough evidence to continue and nothing for the jury to consider. While these motions are frequent, and in some cases even required, they are rarely granted.

Judge Porter's order said that, "as a matter of law, there is no evidence upon which the State could sustain its burden of proof," and "it would be improper to permit the trial to continue given the total failure of proof on the issue of recklessness." While odd, this may have unintentionally left the door open for prosecutors to appeal the decision, as we'll see later.

Does Double Jeopardy Apply?

While some of the anger at the judge's ruling stems from its appearance as letting Servin off the hook based on a technicality (prosecutors failure to assert the proper charge), people are also upset that the prosecutor's mistake can't be fixed. Because of double jeopardy protections, prosecutors can't simply go back and charge Servin with murder.

Put simply, double jeopardy means that a person can't be tried twice for the same crime. This is to respect the integrity of jury decisions and protect citizens from successive prosecutions from a government with superior resources. In almost every case, acquittal verdicts cannot be appealed, and the defendant can't be put on trial for the same actions, even if the charge is different.

There are a few exceptions to this rule. One is if the case was dismissed based on an issue of law: "prosecutors may appeal purely legal determinations which would require no further fact-finding. Determining whether appeal is available thus hinges on whether the issue to be appealed implicates solely legal determinations."

Because Judge Porter presented his order "as a matter of law," rather than an interpretation of the facts, it may allow prosecutors to appeal his decision. However, acquittal appeals are extremely rare and successful appeals even rarer. It's likely that prosecutors missed their "one bite at the apple," and the court's reasoning, although convoluted and confusing to both laypeople and lawyers, will likely stand.

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