Christine M. Flowers: Trial by social media ought to fail

MENSAH M. DEAN / DAILY NEWS STAFF Jonathan Josey (left) after receiving his not-guilty verdict.
MENSAH M. DEAN / DAILY NEWS STAFF Jonathan Josey (left) after receiving his not-guilty verdict.
Posted: February 28, 2013

WHENEVER a cop is involved with a civilian, there's the tendency to give the benefit of the doubt to that civilian, particularly if she can get a sympathetic hearing in the media.

Put on a sad face, say you were disrespected by a man or woman in blue and the prime-time ratings go through the roof.

Yes, there are times when that sympathy is warranted, because some power-hungry fascist is parading as a public servant, or pocketing the proceeds of a crime or abusing a family member in the knowledge that the "blue omerta" will protect him from prosecution. But many cases of "He [officer] said, she [civilian] said" involve creative interpretations of the truth.

Which brings us to what happened last year at a street party after the Puerto Rican Parade. It's important to point out that the parade itself, like many of our ethnic celebrations in the city, is not designed to maim its participants.

Although I don't remember any body counts at recent Columbus, Irish or Pulaski day celebrations, it would be wrong to say that the Puerto Rican festival is any more or less violent than its cultural brothers.

But this parade spawned some "celebrations" that ended with a woman named Aida Guzman lying on the ground with a bloody mouth after then-Lt. Jonathan Josey allegedly punched her for spraying him with "a liquid."

Guzman said she didn't throw anything at the officer, but admitted to playing around with Silly String (they still make that?).

Josey said that he was trying to knock a beer bottle out of the woman's hand and accidentally hit her.

Josey was fired and charged with assault. Tuesday, Judge Patrick Dugan found him not guilty of hitting Guzman. And then some other stuff hit . . . the fan.

Through her attorney, Guzman said she felt "disrespected." I suppose that's normal, and understandable when a judge doesn't believe your version of events.

But that same attorney then added that "the whole Hispanic community was disrespected."

Dealing, as I do, with many Latinos in my immigration practice, I decided to take a nonscientific poll of the one client in my office waiting room, a Mexican.

"Jose," I asked him, "what do you think of the judge's decision?"

Jose responded that, after viewing the video, he thought the officer did mean to hit Guzman.

But then he said something else: "I don't like it when one person pretends to speak for the whole Hispanic community. We're all different, and to say that this is an insult to all of us is, well, just as wrong as what the officer did."

That seems fair to me. Although reasonable people could have different reactions to Judge Dugan's decision, there is no doubt that our prejudices and preconceptions have greater sway than either the law or an unreliable piece of video.

I would add that I doubt that Josey even had time to figure out Guzman's race, as if it mattered.

Jonathan Josey could have acted differently, that's true. He probably regrets flying off the handle as he allegedly did. He probably wishes he'd never been forced to work the parade that day, given the probability that some people wouldn't be able to tell the difference between celebrate and inebriate.

But it's quite easy to second-guess an officer when he's faced with an unruly and possibly violent mob, and expecting him to play by the Marquess of Queensbury rules when everyone else is throwing sucker punches is a bit unrealistic.

The judge made an important point in finding Josey not guilty, a point that shouldn't be lost on the amateur Spielbergs out there who think it's great to put everything on film because, hey, we're so damned fascinating. He noted that "this is not a social-media contest; this is not trial by video."

Bravo to Judge Dugan, who thinks that due process requires a little bit more than just a click of the camera.

If he'd found otherwise, we all would have been "disrespected."


Christine M. Flowers is a lawyer.


E-mail: cflowers1961@gmail.com

Blog: philly.com/flowers

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