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Wednesday, November 24, 2021

A Very Special Big Mad: Teaching Bad Cops a Terrible Lesson

Posted By on Wed, Nov 24, 2021 at 6:20 AM

click to enlarge Ex-cop Dustin Boone got a twelve-month sentence for his role in the beating of undercover officer Luther Hall — less than half of what his own defense attorney was seeking. - DOYLE MURPHY
  • Ex-cop Dustin Boone got a twelve-month sentence for his role in the beating of undercover officer Luther Hall — less than half of what his own defense attorney was seeking.

We've got a special Big Mad edition this week. Instead of spreading the anger a mile wide and an inch deep, we're drilling straight down to tap into molten fires of fury. The topic: the sentencing of ex-St. Louis police officer Dustin Boone.

Going into Monday's hearing in front of U.S. District Judge Richard Webber, Boone's attorneys clearly thought they were in trouble. Their guy had participated in 2017 in a brutal assault on undercover Detective Luther Hall. Jurors convicted him in June of violating Hall's civil rights. Faced with that, the lawyers were left to do the kind of creative hair-splitting that, done well, diverts from big, terrible facts and makes people think the smaller details are actually the most important part. For example: Yes, Boone kneeled on Hall's back and pinned his head to the pavement during an attack. But attorneys focused on when he piled on, as if there is a good time to join a lopsided assault on your co-worker.

Making their job even more difficult, the FBI had pulled just about the worst text messages a cop accused of assaulting what he thought was a Black protester could send. It's tough to argue your client isn't about beating the hell out of protesters when he's texting, "It's going to be a lot of fun beating the hell out of these shitheads once the sun goes down and nobody can tell us apart!!!"

The defense attorneys really didn't even have one of their usual tools — nice comments from Boone's family members — to soften his image. They tried that, but then prosecutors reached a little deeper in the bag of garbage that was Boone's texts and pulled out the horrifically racist messages his retired cop stepfather, mother and sister had sent in family group texts. Right, did we mention Boone was texting stuff like "Fuckin n——-s" to people?

So the lawyers did what they could, making a version of the "locker room talk" argument here, explaining that Boone was just one of many shitty cops there. They knew their client was going to prison. Their task was to polish him up as much as possible and suggest to the judge a sentence that was low, but still significant enough to show Boone understood the gravity of what he had done. They settled on 26 months. Two years and two months was way lower than the decade that the federal guidelines called for, but you've got to start somewhere. This felt like offering $2,000 for a car, hoping you can buy it for $2,500.

Attorneys for Randy Hays, the ex-cop who clubbed Hall with a baton and testified against Boone, asked for 36 months in his case, and prosecutors recommended 70, going easy because of his cooperation with investigators. Judge Webber landed in the middle with 52 months.

When it came time to sentence Boone, Hall pleaded in court with Webber to "send a strong message" to law enforcement. He criticized the judge's "leniency" in Hays' punishment and offered a glimpse of the toll the beating had taken.

"People tell me it will get better," Hall told Webber. "It will never be normal. I can never put this behind me because the pain reminds me of what my fellow officers did to me."

And, well, Webber did send a strong message to law enforcement. In court, he read excerpts of letters people sent in advance of the sentencing (standard in such hearings), allowed a Boone supporter in the audience to come forward and give a rambling endorsement of the former cop (less standard) and then offered his own, confusing anecdote of a childhood brush with racism (getting pretty weird). All of that seems fairly confusing, but when he got to the point, it was this: Boone wasn't that bad. Certainly not as bad as prosecutors had argued. Not as bad as Hall, who had the experience as a Black officer of getting his ass kicked by white officers and then learning at least one of them was a hardcore racist, thought they were. And not even as bad as Boone's own attorneys wagered in recommending those 26 months.

No, Boone was only twelve-months-in-prison bad, in Webber's judgment. Boone only "briefly" kneeled on Hall's back, the judge assured everyone. Boone wasn't the one punching, kicking, body-slamming and baton whipping Hall, Webber argued.

Boone — a white cop whose texts included accounts of multiple beatings, advice to other cops on which drugs were best and a message about taking "the 20s" and whether "sarge is cool w taking any of that cash" — was actually only a tenth as bad as the federal guidelines said he was, according to Webber.

At best, whatever sentence Webber delivered, bad cops were only going to learn to be more discreet than Boone, who liked to memorialize his bad acts in texts. But Webber's message to Boone's fellow officers was surprisingly strong: Don't even worry about it.

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