When people like Kathryn Johnston or Cory Maye understandably mistake raiding police officers for criminal intruders, police and prosecutors are rather unforgiving, particularly if the warrant was “legal.” People like Maye and Johnston are supposed to show remarkable poise and judgment, despite the fact that armed men are breaking into their homes..
When police make mistakes, however, they’re nearly always forgiven. Because we’re supposed to understand how an officer in such a volatile situation might misjudge an everyday object for a gun, or shoot a completely innocent, unarmed man — all perfectly understandable, given the volatile, confrontational circumstances surrounding SWAT raids. Such deaths — while tragic — are mere collateral damage. We have to keep fighting the war on drugs. And we have to protect our police officers by allowing them to break down doors while people are sleeping. The deaths of a few innocent people are the price we pay for the privilege of having the government tell us what we are and aren’t allowed to put into our bodies.
It’s an abhorrent double standard. Below, I’ve listed some cases that illustrate it. The cases below tend to be below-the-radar cases. The list doesn’t include higher-profile deaths like those of Clayton Helriggle, Mario Paz, Alberto Sepulveda, or Donald Scott, among others, because most people who’ve been reading this site for a while already know about them (if you’re interested, I’d encourage you to Google those names).
Here, a brief list of cases to put the Ms. Johnston’s death into its proper context. Let’s start in Georgia:
So police conduct a dangerous no-knock on a home where a child’s inside. The child dies. Police blame the father of the child for (1) possessing cocaine, and (2) not realizing the raiding party was police.
Less than a month earlier, Jackson had been at home when burglars broke into the same house. She escaped out a window and called the police while the intruders ransacked her home. When police arrived to answer the burglary call, they found a small bag of cocaine in the bedroom that belonged to Jackson’s boyfriend. While the quantity of cocaine wasn’t sufficient to press charges, police began a subsequent investigation of Jackson’s boyfriend that led to the September no-knock raid on her home.
As that raid transpired, Jackson, believing she was being robbed again, held a gun in her bedroom as the SWAT team entered. That’s when the police opened fire, killing her. Her maintenance man later told reporters she had been frightened by the previous burglary. Jackson had asked him to install new locks, security bars on her windows, and a motion-detecting security light. The man told the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, “I think she was scared and she probably thought it was another break-in.”
No disciplinary action was taken against the officers.
So police raid the home of an innocent woman while looking for her boyfriend. She mistakes them for intruders (justifiably so, after having just been burgled), and is shot and killed. It’s all her fault. Shouldn’t have been dating a man who uses cocaine. Shouldn’t have had a gun for home protection. Shouldn’t have been scared. Shouldn’t have assumed that when armed men break into your home, it’s probably the burglars who broke in last time, not police looking for your small-time, dope-using boyfriend.
Source: Joshua B. Good, “Fulton woman slain during drug raid; Officers open fire after victim grabbed gun as they burst into bedroom of her Riverdale home,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, September 23, 2000, p. E3.
Police eventually realize the intended target of the raid lives next door. Police Chief Russ Abernathy called the raid “inexcusable” and “not acceptable,” and blamed poor street lighting. But Abernathy added that no one would be fired of disciplined, and that the raids would go on, albeit after “reviewing procedures.” The Bakers are considering a lawsuit.
So police conduct a raid on the wrong home. Had Roy or Belinda Baker owned a gun, one or both might be dead. But since no one was hurt, no harm was done, and it’s really no one’s fault. So there’s no need to assign blame. No one is punished for terrorizing two innocent people.
Sources: Kathy Jefcoats, “Henry police raid ‘inexcusable’; Couple gets wake-up call meant for their neighbor,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, October 6, 2005; Kathy Jefcoats, “Suit threatened in raid ‘mistake,’” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, March 4, 2006.
So if you mistake midnight-raiding police for intruders and there are drugs in your home, your mistake means the death penalty. If your roommates possess drugs and mistake raiding police for intruders and shoot and kill an officer, you’re looking at a murder charge.
Source: Phillip Ramati and Joe Kovac Jr., “‘It just went wrong,’ sheriff says of slaying,” Macon Telegraph, April 5, 2006.
Let’s leave Georgia, and look at some other cases:
Potts was not the target of the raid. He had visited the house to play a game of cards with friends. Police say Potts drew his gun (which he carried legally) and pointed it at them when they broke into the home. The three men in the house who saw the raid disagree, and say the gun never left Potts’ holster. Police found no cocaine, and made no arrests as a result of the raid. The men inside the house at the time of the raid thought they were being invaded by criminals. “Only thing I heard was a big boom,” said Robert Junior Hardin, the original target of the raid. “The lights went off and then they came back on . . . everybody reacted. We thought the house was being robbed.”
No disciplinary action was taken against the police for Potts’ death. So if you’re a completely innocent man in someone else’s home who mistakes invading police for intruders (assuming the police account is correct, not the account of the men inside) and draw your gun in self-defense, the punishment for your mistake is death. And the police, who are raiding to enforce a consensual crime, are right to shoot you.
Sources: Leigh Dyer, “Anatomy of a Deadly SWAT Raid,” Charlotte Observer, September 9, 1998, p. C1; Leigh Dyer, “SWAT Team Serves Risky Warrants, Often Uses Flashbang Devices,” Charlotte Observer, September 9, 1998, p. 4C; Gary L. Wright and Leigh Dyer, “No charges in 2 police killings,” Charlotte Observer, November 4, 1998, p. C1.
Cheryl Lynn Noel. In January 2005, police in Baltimore conduct an early-morning, no-knock raid on the the Noel home after finding marijuana seeds and traces of cocaine in the family trash. Noel, who’s step-daughter had been murdered years earlier, retrieves a legally registered handgun when she hears the sound of home invaders rushing up her steps. A SWAT officer kicks open her door, and Noel, in her nightgown, is clutching the gun, not pointed, when he enters. The SWAT officer, wearing a bulletproof vest and helmet, and carrying a bulletproof ballistics shield, hits Noel twice from the doorway, then shoots her a third time from point-blank range. She dies.
Noel had no criminal record (her husband did, but his offense took place 35 years ago). She conducted Bible-study classes on her lunch breaks. Twenty months after the raid, and probably not coincidentally just weeks after the Noel family filed a civil rights suit, the Baltimore County Police Department awarded the officer who shot and killed Noel a medal for “bravery, courage, and valor” in shooting her.
So if you’re a woman whose daughter has been murdered, and you mistake raiding police for criminal intruders, your punishment is death, and the officer who shoots you not only isn’t disciplined, he’s given an award.
Sources: Joseph M. Giordano, “Woman is shot, killed by police in drug raid,” Dundalk Eagle, January 27, 2005; Joseph M. Giordano, “Petition reflects anguish,” Dundalk Eagle, March 31, 2005; my own reporting.
A grand jury later declines to indict Hill in the shooting, and he continues his employment wit the police department. The same Travis County paramilitary unit would later erroneously raid a woman’s home after mistaking ragweed for marijuana plants.
So if police conduct a no-knock raid and mistakenly kill a completely innocent, unarmed person, it’s no one’s fault, because these raids are naturally dangerous and volatile, and it’s easy to see how mistaken identity might happen.
Sources: Clair Osborn, “Survivors sue Travis county over fatal raid,” Austin American-Statesman, May 10, 2003, p. B1; Claire Osborn, “Deputy not indicted in drug raid death,” Austin American-Statesman, April 4, 2002.
Delamora had no previous criminal record, and his defense says the raid on his home was influenced by an anonymous informant who turned out to be the brother of two sheriff’s deputies. Information about the informant’s relationship with the police was suppressed at trial.
Delamora was eventually convicted of capital murder, and sentenced to life in prison. Police found less than an ounce of methamphetamine and one ounce of marijuana in his home. Prosecutors declined to seek the death penalty because of substantial doubt about whether or not Delamora knew the people outside his door were police. That decision sparked heavy criticism from Texas Attorney General John Cornyn (now a U.S. Senator), who moved for a law requiring the death penalty to be an option in any capital murder case.
Time magazine would later report that people in the community were suspicious of the narcotics task force, describing the team’s general attitude as “those task-force guys were Rambo wannabes.”
So if men are attempting to break into your home, and you mistake them for criminal intruders — bolstered by the fact that your wife calls 911 — you get no deference for the volatility or confrontational nature of SWAT raids. Mistake a cop for an intruder when firing your gun, and you’re going to jail for a long, long time. And God help you if there’s some dope in your house, too. When a member of the same SWAT team later mistakes and unarmed, innocent man for a deadly threat, and consequently shoots and kills him, the police officer won’t even be disciplined, much less sent to jail.
Sources: John Cloud, “Guarding Death’s Door,” Time, July 14, 2003; Jordan Smith, “Another Drug War Casualty,” Austin Chronicle, July 19, 2002; “Delamora attorney says key facts were withheld,” Austin American-Statesman, July 29, 2002, p. A1; “Cornyn: Death penalty must be option when officer killed,” Associated Press, July 25, 2002.
According to the police account of the raid, as officers approach, one of them trips over a tree root, then falls forward, into the lead officer, causing his gun to accidentally discharge three times. One of the three bullets hits Colon in the side of the head, killing him.
Colon was never suspected of buying or selling drugs, and had no criminal record. Police proceede with the raid, and seized eight ounces of marijuana. A subsequent investigation finds no wrongdoing on the part of police. Colon was months away from becoming the first member of his family to earn a bachelor’s degree.
So, again, if a completely innocent person is killed in one of these raids due to police error, we’re supposed to be forgiving and understanding. Sometimes bad things happen with guns, I guess.
Sources: Samuel Bruchey, “Victim’s girlfriend says shooting wasn’t an accident,” Newsday, April 26, 2002; Samuel Bruchey, “Cops’ account disputed again,” Newsday, April 27, 2002; Bruce Lambert, “No indictment in shooting of young man in Suffolk raid,” New York Times, August 9, 2002.
Other occupants of the home were eventually charged with drug crimes. Sutherland sued in June 2004 for redress for his injuries. The state attorney general in turn asked that the suit be dismissed, arguing that the officer in question had qualified immunity, and that, incredulously, Sutherland himself was responsible for his own injuries.
So if you are an innocent person visiting a friend whose roommates are involved in drug activity, if a police officer mistakes something you’re holding as you’re lying in your bed for a gun, it’s your fault for, I guess, lying there so guilty-looking, and your punishment is eleven days in a coma.
Sources: Elizabeth Evans, “Man sues over drug-raid injury; SWAT-type team hit Windsor home,” York Dispatch, June 9, 2004. Elizabeth Evans, “Shooting victim home; Family of man wounded in raid considers lawsuit,” York Dispatch, October 23, 2002.
From his bed, Hoskins hears the loud thud of police breaking into his home. Naked and unarmed, he gets up to investigate. As he approaches the door, a Middletown detective pushes his way into Hoskins’ bedroom. Hoskins and his girlfriend say the detective never identified himself. The detective fires, and later explains that he mistook the t-shirt Hoskins was using to cover his genitals for a gun. The bullet enters Hoskins’ abdomen, and rips through his stomach, small intestine, and colon. It eventually lodges in his leg, which must later be amputated.
It isn’t until weeks later, after he emerges from a coma, that Hoskins learns the man who shot him is a police officer, and not a criminal intruder. Remarkably, the Middletown Township police department saw no need to conduct an internal investigation of the shooting until prodded by the district attorney. The officer who shot Hoskins would never be disciplined.
So if a police officer mistakes a t-shirt for a gun and shoots an innocent man, we should give him the benefit of the doubt, given the volatile and confrontational nature of SWAT raids.
Sources: Larry King, “Man shot in apartment by police hopes for justice,” Philadelphia Inquirer, April 7, 2004; “Pennsylvania Police Fail To Investigate Shooting of Unarmed Man,” Associated Press, September 3, 2004; Laurie Mason and Harry Yanoshak, “Cop cleared in shooting of unarmed man,” Bucks County Courier Times, April 23, 2004; Larry King, “Middletown settles police shooting; A Bristol Twp. Man had sued after a Feb. raid targeting his brother left him without his left leg,” Philadelphia Inquirer, January 16, 2005, p. B8.
A subsequent investigative report by the Houston Chronicle found significant problems with the police investigation and execution of the raid, not least of which was the fact that Benavides didn’t know it was police officers who were invading his home until after he’d fired. One officer told the paper, “I think the Task Force may have had more to do with getting [Officer Early] killed than the kid [Benavides] did.” Police would not tell the paper the identity of the informant whose tip led to the raid, nor would they say whether or how much the informant was paid. Police found some weapons and $290,000 in cash in Benavides’ home (it’s not uncommon for immigrants to carry large amounts of cash), but no drugs.
In 1994, a jury convicted Benavides of murder, and sentenced him to life in prison. He wasn’t convicted of capital murder and was spared the death penalty because, according to the Houston Chronicle, “jurors had some doubt he knew pre-dawn raiders were police.”
So if you mistake police for criminal intruders, and a jury actually concludes that you probably didn’t know the men breaking down your door were police, and you consequently shoot and kill one of them, you can still go to prison for life. Because you should have known better. You don’t get the benefit that comes with the volatility and confrontational nature of these raids, because you aren’t a police officer.
Source: Jennifer Liebrum, “Life imprisonment for convicted killer; Man found guilty in death of officer,” Houston Chronicle, September 23, 1994, p. A34; S.K. Bardwell, “New evidence surfaces in flawed SWAT drug raid,” Houston Chronicle, June 5, 1994, p. A1.
There are more examples, of course. Far, far too many more. See here.