How a “wave of racial hysteria” crashed over two cops accused of murder
Ed. Note: This is the second part of a 3-part series — click here for part one and check back 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.
Part one described the strenuous resistance by black drug suspect Malice Green when two white officers, Larry Nevers and Walter Budzyn, tried to arrest him outside a Detroit dope pad. Green died after Nevers struck him on the head with his Maglite to prevent a gun grab. The firestorm that followed is detailed by Nevers in an exclusive interview with PoliceOne and in his riveting book, Good Cops, Bad Verdict: How Racial Politics Convicted Us of Murder. You can obtain Larry Nevers' compelling account of the case, Good Cops, Bad Verdict, by clicking here.
Larry Nevers says his stoic, self-contained partner, Walter Budzyn, saw “almost from the git-go” that they were going to be railroaded as “stand-ins for every white police officer who ever — in reality or in imagination — mistreated a black citizen.” But until they stood in court and heard themselves sentenced for murder, Nevers held steadfastly to the belief that they would be saved by the criminal justice system they had served for decades.
“I was hopelessly naïve,” he says today. Certainly his optimism was sorely challenged every step of the way by every driving force in their hot-potato case.
Here are just some of the ominous developments that foreshadowed their fate — all, from Nevers’ perspective, calculated to appease the city’s black majority and “head off a riot”:
The morning after Malice Green’s death, Detroit’s black police chief for the “first time in the memory of anyone alive” decreed that customary investigative procedures would not be followed. Ordinarily, a departmental Board of Review conducted fact-finding into any offender fatality and sent influential recommendations to the county prosecutor.
“Every cop who gets in a jam counts on a fair hearing” before the Board, Nevers explains. He was convinced an objective examination of circumstances would confirm that he and Budzyn had been within policy regarding arrest, escalation of force, and recovery of evidence.
In lieu of a Board review, the officers were suspended without pay for “conduct unbecoming.” Soon, the prosecutor’s office charged them with—and the department fired them for—second-degree murder. Already, their chief, alluding to the California jury that had recently acquitted four L.A. cops of beating Rodney King, had declared: “This is not Simi Valley. We will convict.” The mayor, the first black to hold that office in Detroit, had referred to them publicly as “murderers.”
The all-important autopsy of Green’s body was punted by the chief medical examiner to a young Iranian-born junior assistant, newly certified as a forensic pathologist and snowed under with a heavy workload the day before he was to leave on vacation. This deputy hastily reached a conclusion without waiting for a toxicology report and determined cause of death: blunt force trauma.
“Without citing a source and as matter-of-factly as if he had witnessed it himself,” in Nevers’ words, the assistant later wrote that both officers had pummeled Green on the head and face with their flashlights, beating him unconscious. Even when the toxicology discoveries were in hand, he “refused to tweak his findings in the smallest way.”
As it turned out, Green had a toxic cocktail of cocaine and alcohol in his blood. Concerned, the chief M.E. himself performed a second autopsy, which was not publicized and which, indeed, was kept secret for months from Nevers’ and Budzyn’s lawyers.
According to Nevers’ book, the M.E. met about a week after Green’s death with two assistant prosecutors assigned to the case and cautioned them that “the presence of cocaine in Green’s system was something the prosecution would have to address.” A police officer who was in that conference quoted the M.E. as saying, “I’m not so sure that had those injuries been on someone else they would have been fatal.”
One of the prosecutors allegedly replied that the cocaine “doesn’t matter. They beat him to death.” The assistant who performed the autopsy said cocaine was as extraneous as the color of the dead man’s eyes.
To Nevers, “Ignoring the cocaine was like ignoring a missing wing while investigating an airplane crash” — a point of view that would be sustained by eminent outside medical experts at trial.
Before Green’s funeral was even held, his family filed the inevitable lawsuit, demanding $61 million from the city. The 14-page suit claimed that Green’s death was “unjustified, an excessive use of force and abuse of power, and murder.” While a district judge was still conducting a preliminary hearing to determine if Nevers and Budzyn should be tried on criminal charges, city hall negotiated and announced a settlement: $5.1 million.
It was “the quickest and biggest police-brutality settlement in anyone’s memory,” Nevers writes. “The city pulled out its checkbook even before a trial was ordered for us. How could any [prospective] juror not file that away as, ‘Guilty. Signed, sealed and delivered?’ ” One of the lawyers who split nearly $1.5 million under the agreement was the son of a deputy chief at the P.D.
A “lynch-mob frenzy” to make the “two rogue, racist cops” pay for Green’s death was fueled continuously in gross and subtle ways, Nevers says. In their mildest distortions, local media repeatedly characterized the pig-sty drug pad Green was headed toward when the officers intercepted him as a “home” and the street creatures in and around it as “guests.” Green was a “motorist,” a la the hapless Rodney King. One TV newsman, “the biggest non-sports celebrity in town,” slammed a Maglite on his anchor desk during one broadcast to demonstrate how Nevers and Budzyn had bludgeoned their victim.
“Flip TV channels and all you saw was street people talking about Walter and me, and ‘civic leaders’ talking about Walter and me,” Nevers writes. “Even if they didn’t know anything about Walter and me and didn’t know anything about what happened, they all had lots to say. And the TV stations gave them all the time in the world to say it…without checking it out.”
One alleged witness told the cameras, “They beat him for an hour.” A black former state Supreme Court justice reported that he “understood” bone fragments, (suggestively, from Green’s skull), had been found at the scene. A Councilwoman from Nevers’ neighborhood said the altercation was “an execution on the spot.” Nevers, a non-drinker, was claimed to have been drunk when he clobbered Malice Green, and then to have sent an EMS ambulance away while Green was dying. The dead doper’s family drew an interview portrait of their deceased as a quiet man who “was never involved in anything illegal,” while rumor spread that Nevers and Budzyn were implicated in the murder of a witness. A bounty was said to be on their heads. Budzyn was reported to wear three guns when he mowed his lawn. And on and on.
So many untruths “got etched into stone and repeated so many times that a lazy viewer or reader might think Green was on a AAA day trip and got ambushed by Walter and me,” Nevers writes.
Aside from the mayor, “the most powerful black leaders in Detroit” were the preachers at large and influential churches. They poured gasoline on the fire with “non-stop racial rhetoric,” Nevers charges. “The most powerful of all,” the Baptist pastor who delivered the eulogy at Green’s service, elevated the dead suspect to the hagiology of black martyrs, likening him to Martin Luther King Jr., Booker T. Washington, Medgar Evers and others.
With such inflammatory images “coming from the pulpit, it was obvious we didn’t have a prayer of getting a fair trial in Detroit,” Nevers states. “The preachers had us guilty. The NAACP, among our harshest critics, had us guilty.”
Despite the poisonous atmosphere, the chief judge of Detroit’s criminal court — “once named by Reader’s Digest as one of America’s five worst judges,” Nevers writes — announced early on that there would be no change of venue for the defendants. “Once the case comes to trial, publicity…will have died down and it won’t be hard to seat a [fair] jury,” he explained.
Ironically, they had not yet asked for a venue change at that point, Nevers writes, “or stated the reasons for deserving one.” When they did, it was denied.
Fair and Impartial?
A homicide sergeant Nevers knew once observed: “The courtroom is a different world. It’s very difficult to move the street into the courtroom.” For the trial, which began nearly eight months after the incident, the prosecution paraded a bevy of cleaned-up street people to the stand as professed witnesses to Green’s “murder.” Nevers knew them as “overwhelmingly a group of dope-house customers.” He writes: “All of them had outstanding warrants. Every outstanding case was set aside until after our trial, to make the junkies look better as witnesses.”
The judge, a lifetime member of the NAACP, had been rated “unqualified” by the Detroit Bar Assn. when he first ran for the bench some two decades earlier. Anticipating the trial, the Detroit Free Press printed a profile of him in which he acknowledged years-long treatment for severe mental illness — “acute psychotic paranoid depression” — but said he was “able to carry out his duties by faithfully taking his medication and attending regular weekly sessions with a psychiatrist.”
Two juries heard the trial, one to judge Nevers, the other Budzyn. Budzyn’s jury had one white and included an officer of the local NAACP chapter, to whom the judge addressed most of his jury-related remarks, Nevers says. Two whites were on Nevers’ panel. Anyone in his right mind, Nevers writes, would know that they’d all heard the endless buzz that “without a conviction there would be a riot.”
The jurors were not sequestered, so when they went home for the night they could watch a replay of gavel-to-gavel TV coverage and see any parts of the trial the judge might have excluded them from during the day.
One of the prosecutors wore green nail polish every day, a symbolic way of always keeping Malice Green preeminently present.
Attorneys cautioned the defendants to show no emotion during the proceedings, but “it was very difficult to keep from going nuts,” Nevers says.
Just a couple of trial components will suffice to explain the anger he still feels, looking back from more than 15 years later.
One of several medical experts testifying for the defense was the medical examiner for Philadelphia, a neuropathologist and specialist in the effects of cocaine on the human body, which then was a relatively new area of study. He explained that skilled and experienced big-city pathologists were noticing certain common ingredients when suspects died after physical scraps with law officers: a heightened will to resist arrest, a sense of great strength, huge adrenaline surges, and great peril to the heart, which was “typically already enlarged and damaged by drug use.” Today, we would term what he described “excited delirium.”
After examining the official report, tissue slides, photographs and other artifacts from Green’s autopsy, he concluded that “cocaine has a lot to do with the demise of this young man.” He explained that in a stressful situation especially, the drug produces a surge of adrenalin that increases heart rate, at the same time the coke is constricting blood vessels. The risk of sudden death spikes as much as 25 times higher when a drug user also drinks alcohol, he said. In his opinion, Green died of cardiac arrhythmia; a heart attack.
Despite the blows to Green’s head, the expert noted that the suspect had suffered no skull fractures and that the thick membrane surrounding his brain was intact. The brain itself was not herniated, not significantly bruised, not swollen, he said, “and brain swelling is central to death by blunt force trauma alone.”
An associate, a neuropathologist with some 30 years’ experience who had examined “close to 30,000” human brains, agreed. After giving a detailed demonstration using a brain model to support her conclusion, she testified that there was “no evidence of injury in any of the vital areas of the brain which could reasonably have been considered to have caused this man’s death.”
In rebuttal, prosecutors called a celebrity pathologist from New York who is well-known for his peripatetic appearances in high-profile cases. He scoffed at any cocaine influence and said Green died of a concussion.
The judge conversed freely with this witness, cited Bible verses he thought related to his testimony, and characterized him as an “800-pound gorilla” in the trial, leaving (in Nevers’ opinion) no doubt in jurors’ minds as to who had the most cred.
Arguably, the most egregious event of the trial occurred while jurors were idle for a day waiting for this witness to arrive in town. The judge insisted they come to the courthouse, and ordered some movies for them to watch to pass the time.
The bailiff gave them a videotape of Malcolm X.
This film begins with the voice of Malcolm X’s character thundering a provocative speech that charges the white man with being “the greatest murderer on Earth,” while the viewer is shown footage of Rodney King being beaten by police. The King footage is repeated in slow motion in eight segments, interspersed with pictures of an American flag beginning to burn. The voice-over makes explicit reference to Detroit as one city where the black community has been deprived of democracy in the streets.
Grounds for an immediate mistrial? No, said the judge to whom a defense motion to that effect was assigned for hearing. Nevers quotes her as remarking that she herself had seen the movie “more than once” and was considering buying it for her children. She thought Denzel Washington “a fine actor.”
In a matter of days, the juries from both panels would retire to deliberate.