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Even in police deaths, the law can't mandate decency

In the end, a deadlocked jury perfectly defines the divide running down the middle of the criminal case against Cortnee Brantley.

On one side is emotion, understandable anger and a push for some scrap of justice.

It is two Tampa police officers, Jeffrey Kocab and David Curtis, making a bad-check arrest during a traffic stop two years ago, then getting gunned down in a split second caught on police video.

It is Brantley, the suspect's girlfriend in the driver's seat, hearing the shots and driving away without calling for medical help, without cooperating the way police wanted her to in the investigation of Dontae Morris.

And then there's the other side, the cold, hard, necessary requirements of the law.

State prosecutors who are seeking a death sentence for Morris in the murders of the two officers did not find evidence to charge Brantley with a crime.

Federal prosecutors, however, charged her with "misprision of a felony," which means that if you know someone committed a felony and you conceal it and don't tell authorities, it's a crime.

Brantley is accused of failing to tell authorities Morris was a felon who had ammunition and a gun.

"Misprision" sound confusing? Jurors on the case this week might have felt the same.

Despite having been instructed on the law, they sent a question from the jury room asking the definition of "misprision."

The jury tried to reach a unanimous verdict and couldn't, and then tried again with a nudge from the judge. In the end, they could not agree on whether what Brantley did or didn't do was a crime. Mistrial.

At one point U.S. District Court Judge James Moody stated a basic truth here: "This is not an easy case because it carries so much emotion," he said. "It's hard to separate out the evidence from the emotion."

Moody ruled that during the trial, police officers could not come to court in uniform unless they were testifying. A sea of crisp and somber midnight blue uniforms, a wall of solidarity among officers, could well influence a jury's decision.

This may not have made him the No. 1 judge with every cop in town. But it's in the job description for him to see past emotion, to hold steady, and to be as impartial as is humanly possible.

Maybe there are those out there who hoped the case would send a message that stonewalling investigators when the stakes are this high could get you charged.

But that's not what the law is supposed to be about, either.

Prosecutors said Thursday that despite the mistrial, they intend to pursue a charge against Brantley. It isn't surprising.

The judge — who notably at one point told the lawyers he thought Brantley had no duty to give Morris' name or "say anything in an interview" with police — could grant an acquittal.

No matter what comes next in terms of the legal wrangling, here is a bottom line and a hard truth:

In the end, the law can't tell someone to be a decent person. Someone can be wrong, morally wrong, can have shrugged off the duty to act like we believe a human being should act — and still be not guilty of a crime.

Even in police deaths, the law can't mandate decency 07/19/12 [Last modified: Thursday, July 19, 2012 9:58pm]

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