Dodson murder case is one for the middle of the road

Circuit Attorney Dee Joyce-Hayes is taking shrapnel from all quarters for her handling of a murder charge against a police officer in the April 26 death of burglary suspect Julius Thurman.

Whites are furious that Officer Robert Dodson faces 10 years to life in prison after risking his neck to apprehend a burglar on a South Side rooftop in the wee hours of the morning. Blacks are upset that the same second-degree murder charge was dropped a few weeks ago against Officer Stephan Capkovic, who was initially accused with Dodson.

To whites — especially cops — this smacks of a cave-in by Joyce-Hayes to black political pressure on the North Side. To blacks, Joyce-Hayes is distrusted as either incapable or unwilling to prosecute cases of police brutality.

Both sides have held rallies and news conferences. It's a lethal mixture — a white officer and a dead black suspect — and in a racially split city like St. Louis, it could get ugly when the case comes to trial, presumably early next year.

Certainly there must be whites who support Joyce-Hayes and blacks who support Officer Dodson, but don't look for them to parade down Market Street. This is a nasty racial issue if ever this town has seen one.

And I think Dee Joyce-Hayes is doing just fine.

No matter what she did, Joyce-Hayes was going to have a political problem from the moment this case came crashing down on her desk. Medical Examiner Michael Graham had ruled the cause of Thurman's death to be a sharp blow to the back of the skull — he would testify at a preliminary hearing that it was like the force of a sledgehammer — but Dodson's police report made no reference to striking the suspect.

The only eyewitness for the prosecution would be Thurman's accomplice, Williams O. Smith, who told police investigators that "they" (the police at the scene) had beaten Thurman during their encounter in the 2800 block of Chippewa Street. This would leave the circuit attorney with the word of a confessed burglar against two police officers, but this isn't all that extraordinary: As one prosecutor once told me, "We don't generally have the parish priest available to us as a witness in these matters."

So what do you do if you're the prosecutor? Walk away from the violent death of a 19-year-old kid (all of 135 pounds), who had no business burglarizing a building but still didn't deserve to die over it?

Do you just say "tough luck" to the kid's family and, thus, to a black community that isn't exactly cooing with trust and warm fuzzies for white police officers to begin with? Is there no possibility that excessive force took a life?

I think Joyce-Hayes had an absolute responsibility to consider that possibility — yes, even if these officers were trying to protect the citizenry on a dangerous rooftop at 4:45 in the morning — and though she and her office won't discuss the case, the prosecutors (who must work with police every day) obviously decided the evidence merited second-degree murder charges.

But the same office turned cheers into boos on the North Side early this month when — after interviewing Smith — prosecutors dropped all charges against Capkovic. Smith, they said, used "they" to refer to police, not Capkovic, and, it turns out, he had not accused the second officer of striking Thurman.

Again Joyce-Hayes faced a no-win situation politically. Should she ignore the newfound weakness of the case against Capkovic and bore ahead to keep from appearing to capitulate to South Side and police pressure? Should an officer face the loss of not only his career but his freedom (and, in prison, possibly his life) because he was on duty with a cop who — in the prosecutor's opinion — committed a murder?

Does being at the scene of a police encounter gone awry make one an accomplice to a crime?

Clearly it doesn't, and Joyce-Hayes did the right thing by not pursuing a case she obviously didn't feel she could win. But just as she incurred the wrath of Dodson's supporters by pressing ahead with the case against him, so she was attacked for being unconcerned about police brutality in dropping the Capkovic charges.

I haven't a clue as to whether Dodson is guilty, and I think he is entitled to his full presumption of innocence in our system. Among other things, that would suggest that people stop referring to this as an example of police brutality unless and until it's proven in court.

At the same time, those who condemn Joyce-Hayes for bringing the case with what they claim is such flimsy evidence might do well to await the arrival of that evidence at the trial. If this case shouldn't be prejudged — and it shouldn't — then don't do so in either direction.

Much has been made, on both sides, about Joyce-Hayes' unusual decision to move the process through the public route of a preliminary hearing rather than the customary — and secret — grand-jury proceeding. Again, she did the right thing for the right reasons, opting for openness because of the sensitivity of the case.

The hearing resulted in a decision on July 20 by Judge Iris Ferguson that Dodson should stand trial on the second-degree murder charge. In and of itself, this is no vindication for Joyce-Hayes, but imagine the screams from either side had she lost the case at the hearing.

Now, the next stop in Joyce-Hayes' no-win journey will be a battle against Dodson's attorney, Chet Pleban, over a change of venue. Pleban told me he would be filing his request for a change today or Thursday because "the inhabitants of the city of St. Louis are biased and prejudiced against Robert Dodson. They've formed some preconceived ideas, and some of those break down along racial lines."

Here, I've got an opinion: Keep this at home.

Initially, I thought it would benefit the community, by decompressing things racially, to move the trial to another jurisdiction of comparable racial makeup. Forget that thought. The publicity here hasn't been that excessive, and even to the extent it has affected popular opinion, that opinion has been quite divided.

Pleban's argument in effect suggests that blacks' biases are more "racial" than whites' biases. I think not. Moving the trial out of town — which likely would mean an all- or nearly all-white jury — would hardly remove it from biases.

Pleban is a good lawyer whose job it is to give his client his best defense, so you can't blame him for trying to change the venue. But the best answer would be to try this case before a racially mixed jury in the city of St. Louis.

Give Dodson his day in court, with all due presumption of innocence. If the state proves its case, get on with sentencing. If the state doesn't, let Dodson get on with his life.

And in any case, respect the verdict, whichever way it goes. It's an imperfect system, but as Dee Joyce-Hayes can probably tell you, it beats having no system at all.

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