Chicago Cop Acquitted in Fatal Off-Duty Shooting
By Steve Schmadeke and Jeremy Gorner
In a stunning, abrupt end to the first trial in years of a Chicago police officer for a fatal off-duty shooting, a Cook County judge acquitted the veteran cop Monday on a legal fine point, drawing outrage from the black victim's family and leaders in the African-American community.
Judge Dennis Porter ruled that prosecutors failed to prove that Dante Servin acted recklessly, saying that Illinois courts have consistently held that anytime an individual points a gun at an intended victim and shoots, it is an intentional act, not a reckless one. He all but said prosecutors should have charged Servin with murder, not involuntary manslaughter.
Servin cannot be retried on a murder charge because of double-jeopardy protections, according to his attorney, Darren O'Brien.
A chaotic scene erupted in the courtroom after the brother of the victim, Rekia Boyd, reacted to Servin's acquittal by standing and taking a few steps toward Servin, angrily shouting, "This (expletive) killed my sister." Family, supporters and sheriff's deputies quickly pulled Martinez Sutton from the courtoom amid shouts and cries over the ruling.
Later, as Servin walked from the Leighton Criminal Court Building with about a dozen off-duty Chicago cops flanking him, a crowd of about 40 exploded in anger, following him while yelling "(expletive) murderer" and "shame on you." Someone hurled what appeared to be a lunch bag at the officer as he walked toward a parking garage.
"He gets to walk out, he gets to go to his happy life -- that's a slap in the face," Sutton, 32, said moments later as tears streamed down his face. "That's just telling me the police can just kill you, go through this little process, take a two- or three-year vacation and then get back on the force like nothing happened."
The trial marked a rare criminal prosecution of a Chicago police officer for a fatal shooting, the first trial in nearly two decades. The race of Boyd and the officer -- he is white -- never became an issue in the trial itself, but it still hung over the proceedings, coming amid a national outcry in recent months over the deaths of unarmed African-Americans at the hands of white police officers in Ferguson, Mo., New York City, Cleveland and elsewhere.
The head of the Illinois NAACP said Servin's acquittal will only exacerbate the contentious relationship between police and the African-American community.
"This statement -- 'I was afraid for my life' -- it's got to stop," George Mitchell said of the common justification by police, including Servin, involved in shootings. "It's got to stop now because otherwise what's going to end up happening is that police and the community are going to be at odds completely with each other. And there's no reason for that."
Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez issued a statement defending her decision to charge Servin with involuntary manslaughter, saying she was "extremely disappointed" with the judge's decision.
"The state's attorney's office brought charges in this case in good faith and only after a very careful legal analysis of the evidence as well as the specific circumstances of this crime," she said.
In charging Servin with involuntary manslaughter, prosecutors had alleged he acted recklessly in March 2012 when he fired five shots over his shoulder from inside his car in the direction of four people who had their backs to him in a dark West Side alley.
Servin's attorneys said he was in fear for his life after Antonio Cross, one of the four, pulled an object from his waistband, pointed it at Servin and ran toward his car. But police found only a cellphone.
Boyd, 22, was fatally shot in the back of the head, while other rounds grazed Cross' hand and hit a signpost. Only Cross was charged in the immediate aftermath of the shooting, but the misdemeanor aggravated assault charge was dropped in March 2013 -- on the same day the city formally agreed to pay Boyd's estate $4.5 million to settle a wrongful-death lawsuit.
By November 2013, Alvarez charged Servin with four counts of involuntary manslaughter, reckless discharge of a weapon and reckless conduct -- the first criminal charges against an off-duty Chicago cop since Gregory Becker was charged in the 1995 killing of a homeless man. A jury convicted Becker in 1997 of armed violence, involuntary manslaughter and official misconduct, and he was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
On Monday, moments before the defense was to put on its evidence on the fourth day of the bench trial, Judge Porter, a veteran of 27 years at the 26th and California courthouse, stunned the packed and tense courtroom by granting a directed verdict, a rarely granted motion.
Reading his seven-page ruling from the bench, the judge said there was no dispute that Servin had intended to kill Cross, but under the involuntary manslaughter law, prosecutors had to prove he acted recklessly in the legal sense of the word.
"It is easy to say, 'Of course the defendant was reckless. He intentionally shot in the direction of a group of people on the sidewalk. That is really dangerous ... and in fact Rekia Boyd was killed. Case closed,' " Porter wrote. "It is easy to think that way, but it is wrong."
That's because Illinois law says that intentionally firing a gun at someone on the street "is an act that is so dangerous it is beyond reckless," Porter wrote. "It is intentional and the crime, if any there be, is first-degree murder."
Porter acknowledged that it was "perhaps even unfortunate" that neither side would have "closure" on whether Servin was justified in opening fire that night, but he said he had no choice under the law but to dismiss the charges.
Before he left the courthouse, Servin, 46, spoke to reporters, saying that he has always maintained that Boyd's death was a tragic accident and offered her family "my deepest sympathies."
"I need you to know that my family and I have also suffered greatly during the past three years, and we will continue to suffer," Servin said. "This is something that I will live with for the rest of my life. My job is to save lives and protect people, and from an early age I knew I would be a policeman. And that's why I became a policeman so this is a bigger tragedy."
"Any reasonable person, any police officer especially, would've reacted in the exact same manner that I reacted," he said. "And I'm glad to be alive. I saved my life that night. I'm glad that I'm not a police death statistic. Antonio Cross is a would-be cop killer, and that's all I have to say."
Bruce Mosbacher, a longtime criminal-defense attorney, defended the judge's legal reasoning as sound and faulted prosecutors for charging Servin with involuntary manslaughter, calling that a "curious" move that led to a "very distasteful result."
"They didn't charge what they had," said Mosbacher, who contended the office typically brings first-degree murder charges against those who kill by firing into a crowd. "They charged this as a compromise in an effort to help an otherwise good officer ... (and) in an effort to split the baby, they had a very unjust result."
Prosecutors usually charge involuntary manslaughter for accidental deaths such as shooting a family member while cleaning a gun or firing up in the air to celebrate New Year's Eve, he said.
Jonathan Jackson, national spokesman for the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, said he was shocked that the judge threw out the charges "on a technicality," but he said instead of deepening the divide between the police and the black community, he hopes the decision will help the two sides stay committed to ridding the streets of rogue cops.
"I think now's an opportunity for the mayor to say something if this is a young man to represent the Police Department that he controls," Jackson said. "I think it's an opportunity for the superintendent of police to come forward and say something if this is the person that represents the character that he wants to be a part of his Police Department.
While Servin still technically faces potential disciplinary action by the Independent Police Review Authority, Dean Angelo, president of the union representing Chicago police officers, said the process to return Servin to active duty would immediately begin. He has been on paid desk duty since he was charged.
"It's important that he try to get his life back together," Angelo said. "I don't know why it happened that way ... that the state's attorney's office decided to change Dante from victim to offender. It makes no sense to me."
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