Columns » Max Brantley

When a cop kills

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A Pulaski circuit court jury hung 10-2 in favor of a negligent homicide conviction for former Little Rock Police Officer Josh Hastings, who gunned down the driver of a car on an apartment complex parking lot last August while investigating car burglaries.

Hastings wasn't sure who was in the car, though he had some reason to believe it was car burglars. He also told a story about the shooting that — based on expert testimony and testimony from the dead 15-year-old driver's companions — seemed inconsistent with the facts.

A majority of the jury saw it that way, we know from reporting by the Times' David Koon. They didn't think Hastings was in danger from the car. They think he acted recklessly. They considered it all carefully over two days and favored conviction on a lesser charge of negligent homicide — Hastings also was charged with a more serious manslaughter charge — was appropriate.

But two female holdouts opposed any conviction from the first. By one juror's account, they simply couldn't get past Hastings badge. The holdouts reportedly said that Hastings had prevented future crimes by killing Bobby Moore, 15. I shouldn't need to tell you that this isn't a legal justification for use of deadly force — prophylactic execution.

Bobby Moore had a nasty police record at a young age. His juvenile companions were offenders, too. Defense Attorney Bill James managed to make much of that, though he had been instructed not to do so by the judge and was fined $25,000 for contempt of court for ignoring the order to shut up about juvenile records.

The prosecution — in its first prosecution of a police killing in my 40 years in Little Rock — followed the rules. It did not, because it legally could not, introduce abundant evidence of Hastings poor work. He was fired not only for failing to follow department rules on use of deadly force in this shooting. He also was fired for inadequate response to an unrelated burglary and for not telling the truth to supervisors about it. He'd also been suspended six times in five years for offenses ranging from sleeping on duty, to leaving his patrol area, to failure to appear as a witness at scheduled court hearings.

I saw positives in the mistrial. A white cop shot a young black thug in the dark of night and trotted out the tried-and-true police defense that he was threatened. But the police and prosecutor did a thorough investigation and filed charges. An all-white jury then came within a hair of conviction. Even some law-and-order types conceded — while shedding few tears for the dead youth — that Hastings' judgment was questionable and some said they believed that his father's position as an admired police captain undoubtedly gave young Josh an edge in the department on previous troubles.

The prosecution will retry the case. Whatever the outcome, Hastings is unlikely to get his job back. That, by the way, will be a decision fully supported by his record, not a reaction to the current legal controversy over allegations of racially unequal treatment of both cops and suspects by the LRPD.

The reported attitude of the holdout jurors indicates how thin the blue line is between the law and vigilante justice. Cases like Hastings' — prosecution for use of deadly force — are rare. Not rare are garden variety police rousts of equally unpleasant suspects in the dark of night. These should always get the same rigorous review that the Hastings case received. Cops who disrespect the boundaries of the law should get no more leniency than teenage carjackers. Happily, at least 10 Pulaski County jurors demonstrated this week that they believe that.

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