Saturday, February 27, 2010

Equal Justice for Some

Remember those gun shots fired at three newspaper carriers after they were chased into a field the other morning? State prosecutors in Pensacola have filed multiple "counts of felony aggravated assault" against the alleged perpetrators.

The suspects, who are presumed innocent until convicted by a jury of their peers on evidence "beyond a reasonable doubt," have been arrested. They will be duly granted a preliminary hearing or, more likely, charges will be referred to a grand jury to determine if there is probable cause to believe they committed a crime and should be formally bound over for trial.

No "excuse inquest" was requested by the State Attorney's office.

Meanwhile, a 62-year old woman has been charged with murder and arrested after allegedly stabbing her husband to death during an argument over a bill. Again, under our system she is presumed innocent until and unless convicted.

State prosecutors are expected to refer the charges to a grand jury for formal indictment. In the highly unlikely event they don't do that, she will be entitled to a preliminary hearing where she and her lawyers will be present to test the strength of the evidence presented by the State Attorney's office to determine if there is probable cause to believe she committed a crime and should be bound over for trial.

No "excuse inquest" was requested by the State Attorney's office before charging her.

A teen-aged resident of Pace was arrested Thursday by a mob of state, county, and Pensacola city officers. He has been charged with multiple counts of "possessing" child pornography. The charges were filed in cooperation between a special task force of the Florida Attorney General's office and the State Attorney's office in Santa Rosa County. The defendant "is due in court for arraignment on March 31," but the case is likely to be referred to a grand jury beforehand, to determine if there is probable cause to believe a crime was committed and the suspect should be indicted and bound over for trial.

No "excuse inquest" is planned.

Meanwhile, a Florida Highway Patrol officer testified at the second and final day of the "inquest" into the death of 17-year old Victor Steen. He claimed that it was "physically impossible" for the Pensacola police cruiser to avoid hitting him after Steen's bicycle hit a curb. Unasked was whether this was partly or wholly because the cruiser was going at an unreasonable speed, the driver was simultaneously shooting a Taser gun out the window, talking on the police radio, and trying to steer; or whether it came about because the boy was knocked from his bicycle by a Taser shot just before the cruiser ran over him.

No one representing the deceased boy was permitted to participate in this unusual 12th century proceeding where charges have not been filed against anyone after the boy's violent death. The officer driving the cruiser was not required to be present. The only evidence was what the State Attorney's office chose to offer. Accordingly, the testimony was untested by any cross-examination or alternative evidence from other experts.

PNJ reporter Kris Wernowski reports the county judge -- who was until recently a prosecutor in the same State's Attorney office, himself -- may take several weeks to issue his "verdict" stating "whether or not there exists probable cause to believe that the death was the result of a criminal act, criminal negligence, or foul play."

Whatever the county judge's decision may be, it is "merely advisory." It need not result in any arrest, charges, or grand jury proceeding. Regardless of the "inquest," the decision to file charges or present the case to a grand jury remains wholly discretionary with the State Attorney's office.

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