Racial Brutality — or Police Brutality?

Often when a bias crime case goes to trial, the prosecution needs only to convince a judge or jury that a defendant’s actions were motivated by ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation or race. But sometimes, as in this case that ended Jan. 25, it becomes much more complicated.

The prosecutors presented what appeared to be a simple ethnic intimidation case. The defendants, three white and two Hispanic men in their 20s, were accused of assaulting a black couple near Rush Street in April 1988. The prosecution painted the five as drunk and abusive, threatening the couple with harm if they did not leave. The couple testified that the defendants shouted racial slurs at the couple, telling them they had no business in the area.

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After a scuffle between the black man and the defendants ensued, police arrived. The officers spoke of being attacked by the defendants. A police lieutenant testified that a defendant punched him in the nose; an officer said one of them tried to grab her gun. The police said the defendants spit on and swore at them; at all times, police said, they were drunk and unruly. Throughout the prosecution’s case, the jury seemed ready to accept that the defendants had intimidated the couple because they were black.

But when the defense presented its case, an entirely different picture emerged. The defendants spoke of being battered and abused by police throughout the process. One said he was forced to stand handcuffed to a police station rail while bleeding profusely from a truncheon-inflicted head wound; another said he was pummeled by an officer while still handcuffed to a wall. One said he went five times to the Office of Professional Standards, which probes police brutality, and “got the runaround.”

One of the defendants admitted pushing the black man in the crowd, but said he had no racial motive. They were not even drunk, they said, as they had not been able to get into any bars on such a busy night. The only reason they were on trial for a racial assault, the defense suggested, was to cover up severe police brutality.

The jury bought the defense’s case; the five were found innocent of ethnic intimidation, battery and resisting a police officer. A suit against police may be filed