HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH Shielded from Justice: Police Brutality and Accountability in the United States

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Malice Green: On November 5, 1992, Malice Green was questioned by Detroit police officers Larry Nevers and Walter Budzyn, who suspected Green of possessing drugs, as he sat in a parked car.1 Green allegedly failed to comply with the officers' order to drop something in his hand (which, although disputed, may have been drugs). Budzyn reportedly hit Green's fist and wrestled with him in the front seat of the car. Nevers allegedly hit Green in the head repeatedly with his flashlight during the incident. Another officer placed him on the ground and allegedly kicked him. An Emergency Medical Service (EMS) worker arrived on the scene and sent a computer message to his superiors asking, "[W]hat should I do, if I witness police brutality/murder?"2 Other officers and a supervisor arrived but did not intervene to stop the beating. Green had a seizure and died en route to the hospital. After the beating, officers reportedly washed blood from their hands with peroxide and wiped blood from their flashlights and Green's car. Then-Police Chief Stanley Knox quickly labeled Green's death a murder and dismissed seven officers who were involved in the incident because of their actions or inaction.3

Officer Nevers had reportedly been the subject of twenty-five citizen complaints, and Officer Budzyn was the subject of nineteen; none was substantiatedby investigators.4 Nevers was also reportedly the subject of three lawsuits the city settled with plaintiffs. In one lawsuit, the city settled for $275,000 in the shooting of a robbery suspect.5 Green's family was awarded $5.25 million in a civil lawsuit.6

In 1993, Nevers and Budzyn were convicted of second-degree murder in the Green case and began serving their sentences at a federal prison in Fort Worth, Texas; Nevers received a twelve- to twenty-five-year sentence, and Budzyn was sentenced to eight to eighteen years in prison.7 Nevers and Budzyn appealed their convictions, alleging jury tainting, jury bias, erroneous jury instruction, insufficient evidence, and improper denial of a change of venue to lessen pre-trial media impact.8 In July 1997, the Michigan Supreme Court overturned Budzyn's conviction, finding that the jury had been tainted but that only Budzyn's conviction was affected because the evidence against him was not as compelling as the evidence against Nevers.9 Budzyn was subsequently freed on bond. Then, in December 1997,Nevers was released from prison.10 Prosecutors appealed the decision by a federal judge to overturn Nevers' conviction.

In August, the Wayne County prosecutor announced plans to retry Budzyn.11 In April 1998, Budzyn was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the Green case and sentenced to four to fifteen years in prison.12 It appeared that he would not serve additional time in prison because of time already served.13

Officer Vernon Gentry: In a case that was developing at the time of this writing, Vernon Gentry, a 5th District officer, was charged along with two other officers in federal court with conspiracy to rob a citizen of $1 million.14 Gentry reportedly had a troubled history on the force. He was suspended twice and was the subject of brutality lawsuits that were settled by the city. The suspensions stemmed from alleged attacks against his girlfriends. He was acquitted on charges related to fires he had been accused of setting at one girlfriend's house in 1994, but he was suspended for approximately two years while the charges were pending. In 1997 he was again reportedly involved in an assault on a girlfriend, during which he reportedly put a gun to the woman's head and beat her hands with the gun's handle; he was charged with felonious assault, but the charges were dropped when the woman failed to appear in court. Gentry was suspended for two months in the second case.15

At least two lawsuits alleging brutality were filed against Gentry. In 1993, a man filed a lawsuit over a reported beating incident. In 1995 a man sued the city and Gentry, after Gentry allegedly shot the man in the leg; at the time of the incident, Gentry was on suspension in relation to the arson charges but was reportedly carrying his badge and gun when the shooting occurred. The city settled this case for $32,500, according to press reports.

Freddie Vela: Freddie Vela, age eleven, was shot and killed by off-duty Detroit police officer Glenn Price on July 22, 1995.16 Vela was riding his bicycle near a dispute between Price and another man outside a bar. Price shot twice at the man, but missed and hit Vela, who was riding his bicycle nearby. Price was convicted of second-degree murder charges and sentenced to ten to fifteen years in prison.17 The Vela killing led the city's Latino minority to decry mistreatment by officers and lack of attention by the media and civil rights groups. Vela's family reportedly filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the police department.

Bobby Fortune: On June 29, 1995, Bobby Fortune was walking in the area of Rangoon and Tireman in Detroit when a police squad car approached and two officers emerged.18 The officers questioned Fortune, who pleaded with them not to arrest him; Fortune claims that one of the officers told him, "You look like you want to run; go ahead, run."19 Fortune ran, and the officer chased him, punched him in the face, and knocked him to the ground. Both officers then reportedly proceeded to punch, kick, and stomp Fortune about his head, face, chest, and body and legs. Witnesses to the alleged beating told the officers to stop, and the officers threatened the witnesses and told them to leave. Other officers arrived on the scene, and they brought Fortune to Detroit Receiving Hospital where he was treated for broken ribs, facial lacerations requiring stitches, a fractured nose, and an eye injury, along withvarious contusions and abrasions. He was released the next day and was not charged with any crime.

On September 20, 1995, Fortune, through his attorney, requested copies of records pertaining to his arrest and injuries. On October 4, 1995, a complaint and warrant were issued against Fortune, resulting in his being charged with resisting and obstructing a police officer, stemming from the June 29 incident.20 It appeared that charges were only filed against Fortune after his attorney requested records to support a possible civil lawsuit against the officers.21

1 Sean P. Murphy, "Detroit hurts anew," Boston Globe, November 23, 1992; Jim Schaeffer and Roger Chesley, "The fatal force case," Detroit Free Press, May 29, 1993; Janet Wilson, "Ex-cops get prison," Detroit Free Press, October 13, 1993.

2 Schaeffer and Chesley, "The fatal force case," Detroit Free Press.

3 Ibid. Four of the suspended officers later sued the city, Mayor Coleman Young, and Chief Knox, claiming their dismissals violated due process. In February 1997, the city agreed to pay the officers a total of $3.35 million in an out-of-court settlement. "4 cops win $3.35. million in Green case settlement," Detroit Free Press, February 25, 1997.

4 Sean P. Murphy, "Detroit hurts anew," Boston Globe, November 23, 1992. The Free Press reported that each of the officers had more twenty-five citizen complaints filed against them and that none was substantiated by police investigators. Schaeffer and Chesley, "The fatal force case," Detroit Free Press, May 29, 1993.

5 Ibid.

6 In another costly lawsuit relating to the Green case, a former assistant Wayne County medical examiner who was pressured to alter his findings by his superiors was awarded $2.5 million by a jury in May 1997. The coroner had claimed that he was dismissed because he refused to state that cocaine contributed to Green's death but stuck by his finding that Green's death was a homicide caused by blunt-force head injuries. "Coroner in Green case gets millions," Detroit Free Press, May 16, 1997.

7 The other officer involved in the Green case, Officer Robert Lessnau, was reinstated in March 1994 after he was acquitted on assault charges, and remained on the force as of October 1997.

8 Charlie Cain, "State high court to hear appeals of Budzyn, Nevers this week," Detroit News, November 11, 1996.

9 Pete Waldmeir, "O'Hair's decision to retry Budzyn certainly doesn't make a lot of sense," Detroit News, August 17, 1997; David Ashenfelter, "Budzyn case prosecutor opts to go for new trial," Detroit Free Press, August 15, 1997.

10 Ron French and David Shepardson, "The partner: Nevers hopeful about outcome," Detroit News, March 20, 1998.

11 Ibid., and Jim Dyer, "Budzyn, Nevers `not close friends,'" Detroit News, February 19, 1998.

12 B.J. Reyes, "Detroit cop sentenced in beating," Associated Press, April 17, 1998, [Wire Service]; "Ex-cop convicted in beating death," Associated Press, March 19, 1998, [Wire Service].

13 "Ex-Cop free in beating death," Associated Press, May 20, 1998, [Wire Service].

14 David Migoya, "10-year cop had history of suits, suspensions," Detroit Free Press, January 15, 1998; Suzanne Siegel, "The Southfield raid case," Detroit Free Press, January 23, 1998; David Migoya, "Victims' families recall violence by heist suspects," Detroit Free Press, January 19, 1998.

15 Migoya, "Victim's families recall violence by heist suspects," Detroit Free Press, January 19, 1998.

16 Santiago Esparza, "Detroit's Latinos cry out for respect after officer's trial," Detroit News, February 25, 1996.

17 According the Wayne County prosecutor's office, telephone inquiry, October 15, 1997.

18 Bobby Fortune v. City of Detroit, Detroit police officers Darryl Brown and Lemuel Wilson, and other officers, U.S. District Court Case No. 96-72432, filed July 10, 1996, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Michigan, Southern Division.

19 Ibid.

20 Ibid.

21 Telephone interview with an attorney representing Watson, Michael Haddad of Goodman, Eden, Millender & Bedrosian, October 21, 1997.

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© June 1998
Human Rights Watch