There is a saying in Congress that there are two things you never want to watch being made: laws and sausage. After serving five years as an ADA in New Orleans, I believe certain verdicts in criminal cases should be added to that list. However, if the community truly wants a better criminal justice system, then it must carefully observe not only the finished product, but also the parties responsible for its production along the way.
In a recent case, Judge Ben Willard found former NOPD Officer Jamal Kendrick not guilty of malfeasance in office following the presentation of video evidence that clearly showed the defendant repeatedly striking a victim who was handcuffed behind his back lying face down on the ground.
As the prosecutor who tried the case, I was dumbfounded by the judge’s reasoning explaining his verdict. He reasoned he could not find the defendant guilty because the DA’s office had not charged the other officers involved in the stop.
First, the vehicle in which the victim was riding was the subject of a high-speed chase. Prior to the victim being handcuffed, officers, including the defendant, did physically pull the victim from the car with their weapons drawn, but Kendrick was not charged with violating the law during this interaction.
After the victim was handcuffed, the defendant struck him no less than five times as he verbally taunted him in a vulgar manner. After the victim was handcuffed, Kendrick was the only officer who touched him and that is why he alone was charged.
Nevertheless, the judge’s reasoning is still fatally flawed. A judge is obligated to adjudicate the defendants brought before him based upon the law and facts presented. It is wholly irrelevant to the analysis that others may have gotten away with the same conduct.
Judge Willard also reasons that the failure of the victim to testify warrants an acquittal. If it were true that all criminal prosecutions required the testimony of the victim, then every murder case would be doomed at the outset. At trial, an officer who was on the scene identified every person in the video. Malfeasance requires prosecutors to prove that an officer (i.e. Kendrick) performed his duty in an unlawful manner (i.e. striking a handcuffed detainee). Unchecked official misconduct is toxic to our criminal justice system. As such, every member of this community was aggrieved.
The victim was released because he had not committed any criminal violations. It is unfortunate that he refused to cooperate out of fear and the belief that the system would not hold the defendant accountable. It is truly unfortunate that the victim was correct.
Christopher S. Bowman
assistant district attorney, Orleans Parish