Archive for Thursday, February 27, 2003

Analysis: Dismissed cases raise questions of justice

Officer’s firing affecting investigations’ outcomes

February 27, 2003


Justice denied, says a fired Lawrence Police officer who has seen at least 12 criminal cases on which he worked dismissed in recent weeks.

Justice served, others say.

Officer Stuart "Mike" Peck's firing earlier this month on ethical grounds has been linked to what Douglas County Dist. Atty. Christine Kenney said was the biggest batch of dismissed cases in her 13 years in the prosecutor's office. Kenney dropped charges against at least five men Peck accused of dealing illegal drugs -- and in many cases, Kenney did so before Peck's firing became official on Feb. 10.

"We have to prove our cases beyond a reasonable doubt, which is a very high standard," Kenney said.

In each dismissal, assistants in Kenney's office cited a specific reason: most commonly "witness unavailable to testify." That may sound like a purely logistical problem, but some people said what was really at issue went to the heart of the criminal-justice system: the need for a police officer to be a believable witness.

In Douglas County District Court, Peck no longer holds that status -- despite his argument that what got him in trouble with a judge was nothing more than a misunderstanding.

"A police officer observes and reports what has occurred, and naturally they are given a great deal of respect when they testify because they are trained to investigate," said Shelley Bock, a defense attorney who represented a 19-year-old Eudora man whose cocaine-dealing case was dismissed earlier this month. "The average citizen wants to believe them. After all, who shows up to help you in a crisis? When an officer loses that aura, that credibility goes down the drain."

Peck maintained he did nothing wrong. He lost his job a few weeks after District Judge Michael Malone ruled Peck gave misleading information about a confidential informant to obtain a search warrant in a drug case.

Peck told the Journal-World recently it was "sad" his cases were being dismissed.

Larry Welch, director of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation and a Lawrence resident, said that whenever numerous cases are dropped because of an officer's problems, it means the criminal-justice system is working, not failing.

"If there's any question at all about the credibility or validity of the evidence, then you've got to resolve it in favor of the defendant," said Welch, who has taught classes on courtroom testimony for police recruits.

Welch cautioned that he was speaking hypothetically and not about the specifics of the Peck case. He said a police officer's knowledge and credibility were his or her only assets in the courtroom.

"If that person has lost credibility in a particular case, it's got to be questioned in all others. That's playing it fair," Welch said.

Kenney has said some of the dismissed cases might be refiled later.

Those whose cases were tossed are now the beneficiaries of Peck's troubles -- at least for now. But who are the losers here?

"Justice perhaps has been lost, and yet having said that, that's not true because justice has been reconfirmed," Welch said, again speaking hypothetically. "The only thing that's been lost would be a potential conviction, and there are a lot more convictions down the road."

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