After a long series of strange verdicts in which the courts exonerated and even rewarded criminals but penalized their victims and the police for resisting them, maybe American juries finally are beginning to get some common sense.
A few days ago, a jury in Fort Worth, Texas, turned the tables on Jesus Puentes. Instead of paying him the $1.7 million he sought for injuries suffered when a bystander intervened to keep Puentes from killing or injuring a police officer, the jury ordered Puentes to pay the officer that amount.This week a jury in Los Angeles refused to award Rodney King the $15 million he sought from six police officers involved in his admittedly excessive and infamous beating.
What a welcome contrast to many previous cases like the one last year in New York City, where a mugging victim never got a penny for nearly being choked to death but his mugger got $2 million because a policeman shot him to stop the attack.
The verdict in the King case deserves particularly close scrutiny. King already had successfully sued the police officers' employer, the City of Los Angeles, for $3.8 million in compensatory damages. That's more than most drunken driving victims collect for graver injuries than those inflicted upon King by police after he led them on a drunken 100 mph chase. To have awarded him millions more would have been to indenture for the rest of their lives the officers, who already are saddled with heavy attorneys' fees. Two of them have been sentenced to prison.
There is sound logic in making Los Angeles, rather than the individual policemen, pay the price for King's battering. To escape such damages, other police departments will be spurred to train their officers to properly subdue a belligerent suspect. But if the jury had allowed King to drain the six Los Angeles officers, police everywhere might hesitate before using appropriate force. This could endanger them and bystanders and allow criminals to escape.
Moreover, as Scripps Howard News Service notes, "to have lavished upon King the $15 million he sought from the police officers would have been to feed his bogus martyrdom and even to denigrate true victims of racist brutality" such as Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King Jr.
Finally, the Los Angeles jury did juries everywhere a favor by putting a big dent in the growing impression that such panels were only rubber stamps for anyone seeking a big payday regardless of the merits of their case.