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Good Cops, Bad Verdict: The case today...and lessons learned
Ed Note: Previous installments (check out parts one and two here and here) detailed the infamous case of black drug addict Malice Green, who died after a violent struggle with two white Detroit officers, Larry Nevers and Walter Budzyn. Despite a “lynch-mob” atmosphere, the officers hoped medical testimony in their racially-charged trial would persuade jurors that Green was killed by “agitated cocaine delirium,” not by flashlight strikes to his head. But as Nevers recounts in this exclusive series for PoliceOne and in his book, Good Cops, Bad Verdict: How Racial Politics Convicted Us of Murder, the odds were against them.
Part 3 of a 3-part series
Surprisingly, considering the frenzy to convict that prevailed before and during the trial, the two juries charged with judging Larry Nevers and Walter Budzyn deliberated for more than a week. Their verdicts were what Budzyn had expected, but they shocked Nevers: guilty of murder in the second degree.
If you saw the TV footage or a newspaper photo of Larry Nevers burying his face in his hands and sobbing, it’s an image you’ll not soon forget.
As “ringleader” of the alleged Maglite beating, he drew a sentence of 12 to 25 years. Budzyn got eight to 18. Before sentencing, the county prosecutor had written the judge a letter, reminding him of the NAACP’s interest in the case. The police union called the outcome “a victory for the drug dealers, addicts, pimps and prostitutes in the city.”
After the verdict, one of the white jurors claimed on TV that he’d felt pressured into voting with the majority. But nothing came of that.
Nevers was off to a place he never thought he’d be, sharing a 10-foot cell with his “partner in crime.” For their safety, they were incarcerated in a federal medical facility in Texas, instead of a state prison in Michigan where they’d be with violent offenders they’d arrested.
Nevers washed towels in the laundry. Budzyn passed some of his time pushing a fellow inmate around in a wheelchair, a black man who’d once been chief of Detroit P.D. and was doing a term for the disappearance of a million dollars in department funds.
It was October, 1993, when the two partners were sentenced. Now, fast-forward 10 years.
In that decade, through a series of appeals both Nevers and Budzyn were granted new, separate trials. Although public emotions had cooled somewhat by then, Nevers builds the case in Good Cops, Bad Verdict that the malignant stereotype of white cops brutalizing a black citizen remained a driving force in their fate.
Nevers and Budzyn were convicted anew, this time, though, of involuntary manslaughter. Budzyn was sentenced to time served. Nevers was sent back to prison before eventually being released on parole. He was finally freed of that stricture in 2003.
Between the trials, Nevers was operated on for lung cancer. Still afflicted with emphysema, he is left with only one-third normal lung capacity. “My health sucks,” he says. “I’m on oxygen 20 hours a day.”
As a convicted felon, he lives with other restrictions, too. He can’t own a gun, can’t vote, can’t be admitted to Canada across the river where he’d like to hit the casinos to pass long days. “The case is completely behind me,” he says, “but it will never be behind me. ‘Convicted felon.’ I hate every minute of that.”
With five years having passed since the end of his parole, he’s now eligible to petition the governor to have his conviction expunged. Former prosecutors from two counties neighboring Detroit have gone on record as criticizing the way the Green case was handled. One said the officers’ actions were “not a bad arrest, but an arrest that went bad”; the other called it “a total miscarriage of justice” and said “flat-out that he would not have brought charges of any kind,” Nevers writes. He wants desperately to clear his name, but finds it tough to generate much hope.
“I wasn’t a brutal cop or a killer cop,” he writes. “I wasn’t a storm trooper in any White Occupation Army, and neither was Walter. I was a good cop, an equal opportunity arrester. And I will go to my grave knowing I did not strike Malice Green with lethal force.”
He’s had lots of time, in prison and outside, to reflect on “shoulda-wouldas.” Realizing that the kind of rush-to-judgment firestorm he and Budzyn were consumed by can still happen on the street today, Nevers offers six points of advice that may help you escape a trick bag without paying the price he did:
1. Kiss your dash-cam. “If you are following procedure, then the camera on your dashboard can be your best friend,” he says. “Be glad you have it. We didn’t.
“If you’re a good, proactive street cop, some of the situations you get into will not be pretty. But the camera will tell the truth a lot better than any junkies or other questionable witnesses who happen to be watching the action and may have motive to testify against you.
“If our confrontation had been taped, you would see a felony suspect refusing to hand over evidence then resisting arrest stubbornly for a very long time. You’d see other cops arrive on the scene and struggle to handcuff him. And you’d see how I used my flashlight. I’m convinced a camera would have saved us.”
2. “Own” your training. “If your department is willing to let you roll onto the street without constantly bringing you up to speed on the newest techniques, procedures, and resources, don’t let them do it,” Nevers emphasizes.
“When I was going through the academy, they showed us a judo demonstration that was so complicated I couldn’t remember it. We boxed for one minute with someone our own weight. After that, I had firearms ‘training’ (qualification) once a year. Period. I didn’t have training in physical alternatives that I might have tried on Malice Green.
“If your department doesn’t step up to the plate to train you, take courses on your own. The more you learn, the better prepared you’ll be to handle trouble and the more credibility you’ll have when you try to defend your actions.”
3. Counter the media steamrollering. “Never underestimate the power of news media to choose a horse and ride it until it drops,” Nevers cautions. “If — perish the thought — you ever find yourself in a jam, with the media and special interests yelling for your hide when all you did was do your job, then get out in front of the story, or at least keep up with it.
“If you feel you can’t speak for yourself, your union or your lawyer ought to. You don’t want potential jurors hearing only the other side’s spin on things. By the time anyone on our side talked to reporters about what really happened, we had already been convicted down at headquarters, in city hall, in the newspapers and on TV. That’s way too late.”
4. Be physically realistic. “My emphysema was diagnosed a week after the fight with Malice Green. I was 52 years old, overweight, just a few months from retirement. Green was a small guy but he was high on crack and he resisted arrest beyond any rational belief, trying to get my gun. By the time other officers arrived and hauled him away, I was thoroughly winded and about to fall on my ass.
“Take care of yourself physically. I didn’t. As you grow old in a law enforcement career, don’t think you’re still a kid and invincible. Be honest about the shape you’re in and your capabilities. And when you know in your heart that the time is right, take that desk job when it’s offered.”
5. Stay self-defensively skeptical. “The best legal advice, they say, comes from lawyers. I imagine that’s true most of the time,” Nevers says. “But I was ready the night of the Green incident to sit down and write a detailed report of everything that happened out there. I started to do so. But the lawyer the union sent told me to tear up my statement and keep quiet.
“Maybe every lawyer in the country would have given the same advice. Maybe doing different wouldn’t have mattered. But I know the only way now I’d refuse to write a statement would be if I thought I was guilty.
“Be skeptical about things that don’t make sense to you. Don’t automatically let others control your fate without questions. Yes, you need to believe in the system if you’re committed to serving it, but you also need to understand how wrong it can go, especially in a white cop/black suspect situation. And if it’s your neck in the noose, you have to be willing to fight harder than anyone else to save it.”
6. Bookmark this website: www.policedefense.org. That leads you to the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund, a not-for-profit group based in Virginia that provides financial assistance, legal support and subsistence grants to LEOs who must defend themselves in court or before administrative bodies for “actions taken in the line of duty to enforce the law.”
On the website, you can sign up for a free newsletter regarding cases of interest and access links to other important law enforcement sites, as well as learn how to make application if you are in need. The group’s board of directors, which passes on all requests, includes a former U.S. attorney general, a former counsel to the U.S. Secret Service, and a former administrator with the federal DOJ.
“Despite fund-raisers, contributions from the union, and family resources, we would have been wiped out if we hadn’t gotten $100,000 from the Legal Defense Fund,” Nevers says. “They were a godsend at a time when we felt very much alone against overwhelming forces.”