Tuesday, April 12, 2005
Big Brother Is
Watching Being Watched
There's an old truism in criminal law that if the trial comes down to a dispute between the word of a police officer and that of a defendant, the defendant will almost always lose since juries tend to trust the police officer when presented such a choice. With that in mind, things weren't looking good for Dennis Kyne, charged with inciting a riot and resisting arrest, as one of the 1,806 people arrested in the massive sweep of protesters conducted by the NYPD during the Republican National Convention held here last summer.
"We picked [Dennis Kyne] up and we carried him while he squirmed and screamed," the officer, Matthew Wohl, testified in December. "I had one of his legs because he was kicking and refusing to walk on his own."You can imagine the relief Kyne felt when the charges were summarily dropped just one day after Officer Wohl's testimony. Kyne's guardian angel came in the form of a modern technology that has become increasingly ubiquitous because of its compact size and affordable price tag. Ironically, a technology that many have feared (rightly in some instances) enhances government's power to invade the privacy of its citizens in the fulfillment of Orwellian prophesies, has been turned back on the powers that be.
During a recess, the defense had brought new information to the prosecutor. A videotape shot by a documentary filmmaker showed Mr. Kyne agitated but plainly walking under his own power down the library steps, contradicting the vivid account of Officer Wohl, who was nowhere to be seen in the pictures. Nor was the officer seen taking part in the arrests of four other people at the library against whom he signed complaints.Realizing the strong presumption of honesty in their favor, over-zealous or simply corrupt police officers and district attorneys have often been seduced by their power to bend the truth to their will. Mr. Kyne was not alone.
A sprawling body of visual evidence, made possible by inexpensive, lightweight cameras in the hands of private citizens, volunteer observers and the police themselves, has shifted the debate over precisely what happened on the streets during the week of the convention.
For Mr. Kyne and 400 others arrested that week, video recordings provided evidence that they had not committed a crime or that the charges against them could not be proved, according to defense lawyers and prosecutors.Mistake? Maybe the technician went to the same school as Nixon's careless secretary. Sadly, the behavior of the NYPD appears to have been an over-reaction to the largely peaceful protests, as the Times reports "of the 1,670 cases that have run their full course, 91 percent ended with the charges dismissed or with a verdict of not guilty after trial."
Among them was Alexander Dunlop, who said he was arrested while going to pick up sushi.
Last week, he discovered that there were two versions of the same police tape: the one that was to be used as evidence in his trial had been edited at two spots, removing images that showed Mr. Dunlop behaving peacefully. When a volunteer film archivist found a more complete version of the tape and gave it to Mr. Dunlop's lawyer, prosecutors immediately dropped the charges and said that a technician had cut the material by mistake.
In the bulk of the 400 cases that were dismissed based on videotapes, most involved arrests at three places - 16th Street near Union Square, 17th Street near Union Square and on Fulton Street - where police officers and civilians taped the gatherings, said Martin R. Stolar, the president of the New York City chapter of the National Lawyers Guild. Those tapes showed that the demonstrators had followed the instructions of senior officers to walk down those streets, only to have another official order their arrests.Facing an embarrassing PR imbroglio, as well as some fairly substantial lawsuits based on the wrongful arrests and the lengths of the detentions (thanks for spending my tax dollars on police misconduct in service of the GOP Convention Mr. Bloomberg), some officers have taken to misrepresenting the truth, under oath, on the stand. Unfortunately for them, Little Brother was watching.