Infamous “killer cops” case has lessons for the street today
Ed. Note: This is the first part of a 3-part series — check back on November 12th for part two and on November 26th for part three — by Charles Remsberg, author of Blood Lessons: What Cops Learn From Life-Or-Death Encounters, available for purchase from PoliceOne Books by clicking here. Charles would like to send a special word of thanks to retired Suffolk County (N.Y.) police officer Keith Bettinger for "giving me a heads-up on Nevers’ book." You can obtain Larry Nevers' compelling account of the case, Good Cops, Bad Verdict, by simply clicking here.
Many of you were too young to wear a badge and carry a gun when two white cops in Detroit — Larry Nevers and Walter Budzyn — were sent to prison for murdering a black doper named Malice Green.
Officially, they’re convicted felons. But looking back, the case reeks of railroading. And it can’t be easily dismissed as an unfortunate relic of a bygone era.
Given the persistence of unprincipled politicians, rush-to-judgment media, and shrill, demanding voices of racial activists, it’s alarmingly clear that you could still find yourself caught in a Nevers-Budzyn nightmare today.
“I’d like to say it could never happen again,” Nevers told PoliceOne in a recent exclusive interview. “But when I see cases of officers pilloried in the press for controversial shootings or other uses of force, see them put on trial and convicted in some cases, I think, Oh my God, they’re doing it again. When it comes to a black-white issue, hold onto your drawers, because they may come after you, right or wrong.”
Nevers has written a book (entitled Good Cops, Bad Verdict: How Racial Politics Convicted Us of Murder) about his and Budzyn’s bullet-train ride to the penitentiary. He worked on it for more than 10 years, starting in his prison cell. It covers 492 pages, and there’s not a dull word in it.
What he chronicles will make the hair on the back of your neck stand up, but it’s a cautionary tale every street cop should read. In this series we’ll cover just a few of the highlights — “low lights” would say it better — plus some lessons Nevers says he learned that may help you avoid what he describes as “every officer’s worst fear, worse than the fear of death itself.” Fear of going to prison unjustly.
On the night of Nov. 5, 1992, Nevers and Budzyn were newly assigned as partners in a “booster car,” an unmarked, plainclothes, proactive Detroit P.D. unit that prowled the mean streets in search of felony offenders and crimes in progress.
At about 2230 hours, they spotted a red sedan with bullet holes in one fender that they thought resembled a car reported stolen at gunpoint the day before. They pulled up behind it when it stopped in front of a well-known dope pad — “a filthy hole where hookers and junkies gathered to drink beer and use drugs” — after paying the proprietor “a couple of bucks for the privilege.”
As the officers braced the car’s three occupants, who included the proprietor himself, a crowd quickly gathered, including “three men I had arrested in cases ranging from dope possession to armed robbery, one prostitute and one street person whom I had interviewed more than once,” Nevers writes.
He stayed by the booster car, “trading typical street chat with this very typical cast of street characters,” while Budzyn tried to get the driver to produce a license. The driver, a B/M stranger, was later identified as 35-year-old Malice (“Fly”) Green, “a nickel-and-dime drug user,” with previous arrests for resisting and for assaulting a police officer, among other offenses. He opened the front passenger door and sat sideways on the seat as he rummaged for his license.
Fifty feet from the nearest street light and with no bulb in the sedan’s dome light, Nevers could not see well what was going on. But then one of the bystanders blurted, “What’s wrong with your partner? You better get over there and help him.”
Nevers ran up, found Budzyn and Green struggling on the front seat — “He’s got dope in his hand!” Budzyn yelled — and joined the fray. Nevers managed to pry Green’s “baby finger” open enough for a crack rock to fall out, but beyond that the suspect resisted with a “frantic stubbornness” Nevers had never witnessed before across some 5,000 felony arrests. He seemed “turbocharged,” in Nevers’ word. Loud verbal commands and whacks on his clenched fist with Nevers’ Maglite yielded no cooperation or the slightest diminished determination to fight furiously with the officers.
“I’ve confiscated enough dope to make the entire population of Detroit high for a week,” Nevers writes. “But I never encountered anyone with such maniacal, senseless, endless refusal to unhand evidence.”
When Green squirmed across the seat and released the driver’s door, Nevers ran around the car to keep him from escaping. At the driver’s open door, with Green’s head “hanging half way to the pavement,” Budzyn pinning his legs inside the car, and Nevers kneeling in the street with his back against the door, the battle for control continued, full force.
At one point, “Green swung his fist beneath the car and brought it back as an open hand,” having thrown whatever rocks he’d clutched, Nevers was certain. For an instant, he thought Green at last “was ready to call it a night.” Instead, he “reached and put his open hand squarely” on the butt of Nevers’ Colt revolver, holstered in the cross-draw position.
Larry Nevers was 52, 17 years older than Malice Green, overweight and in the early stages of emphysema. “I was fatigued…seriously winded,” he writes, putting it conservatively.
He clamped his left hand down to anchor his gun, and with his right hand “I hit Malice Green on the top of the head” with the shaft of the Maglite, the only implement he carried besides his sidearm. How many times he struck has been variously stated. The morgue staffer who posted Green’s body first claimed there were 14 blows, although later during cross-examination, he said there were six or seven.
Nevers claims he hit Green three or four times initially. A few moments later, with Green still not controlled, “I struck him maybe three more times.” He insists that the flashlight was propelled by snaps of his wrist, that his “upper arm remained stationary,” that he did not at any time raise his arm above his shoulder in a bludgeoning fashion. Budzyn did not deliver any strikes at all with his own flashlight, Nevers believes.
Green bled profusely. “The tissue below the scalp is loaded with capillaries,” Nevers writes. “Hit a man on the top of the head with a metallic object and he will bleed profusely even if his injuries are minor.” Nationally recognized medical experts would testify later that Green skull’s was not fractured nor was his brain bruised or swollen. Had he been swinging the flashlight with the force and frequency some alleged, Nevers states, “Malice Green’s skull would have been crushed like a pumpkin in the road.”
It was only with the help of three backup officers, responding to a hasty radio plea from Budzyn, that Green was eventually subdued, handcuffed, searched, and readied for transport to a hospital by EMS.
One of the responders, a black sergeant, noticed Nevers leaning against the booster car, “panting for breath.” “Take it easy, Larry! Take it easy!” he cautioned, seeing Nevers’ physical distress.
“Down the line,” Nevers writes, “prosecutors would plant in jurors’ minds the idea that [the sergeant] was yelling at me to stop swinging my flashlight at Malice Green’s head” — an interpretation the sergeant has denied.
Before EMS headed off, Budzyn asked the crew for peroxide so Nevers could clean himself and his equipment. “I had blood on my hands, on my jacket and on my flashlight,” Nevers writes. “Later, that request for peroxide would be portrayed as an effort to destroy blood evidence. Actually, it was a simple hygiene issue” — an attempt to prevent against AIDS. “No one destroys evidence in front of twenty or more witnesses.”
The “Oh-Shit” Moment
About 30 minutes after the street fight ended, word came that Malice Green had died en route to the hospital. Nevers and Budzen where sitting in their booster car, still at the location, when they got the news. The sergeant informed them that “this is now a homicide scene.”
Nevers writes: “I reacted with an emotion that is the opposite of emotion — shock…. It flat-out never occurred to me that Malice Green might die. If I intended to kill a man with a two-pound flashlight, I certainly could have. I wasn’t even intending to inflict serious physical harm. Serious hurt, yes. Hurt — with a normal person — ill bring resistance to an end. With Malice Green, it did not.
“I know how hard I hit him. It wasn’t hard enough to kill him unless there was something inside his own body that would make these blows fatal…. In the months and years ahead, I would learn much about what happens when a coked-up body becomes subject to stress, especially the stress of struggling with an authority figure who is trying to take away precious junk.”
But that was later. Now, “from the moment the dope house was declared a homicide scene, it was like gravity started pulling Walter and me down into a very large and very deep pit.”
At the station, Nevers began to write out a detailed account of what had happened. When a union lawyer showed up, he told him to tear it up. “‘We’re not giving them anything,’” Nevers quotes him. “He thought there might be something in the report that might be used against us. Never having been in that position before, I felt I had to do what he said.” To this day, he regrets not getting his and Budzyn’s versions of events on the table early on.
Until that night, Nevers and Budyzn were respected veterans of Detroit P.D. Nevers was nine months from retirement after 24 years’ service, “trying to take guns and drugs off the streets, like bailing a sewer with a teaspoon.” He doesn’t shy from asserting that he “had enough citations and decorations and good cases to fill three or four careers,” as did Budzyn.
But timing is everything in life, and the timing of the one-time encounter with Malice Green was pivotal. Six months earlier, South Central Los Angeles had gone up in flames after a jury in suburban Simi Valley acquitted four LAPD officers of beating Rodney King with batons after a high-speed pursuit and Tasering. Fifty-three people died in that rioting.
Black Detroit, too, had a history of rioting that had devastated the once-thriving city. The powers that be lost no time in moving to preempt a recurrence.
Less than 24 hours after Malice Green died, the Detroit chief of police, “with no real idea of what had happened on the street,” summoned TV cameras and declared: “This is not Simi Valley. We will convict.”
Three days later, a week before Nevers and Budzyn were charged with any crime, NBC aired an interview in which the mayor stated emphatically that Green was “literally murdered by police.”
The two officers, in effect, were grabbed by the hair and their heads yanked down to the chopping block.
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