Tue Dec 13, 2005

Knock Knock, Bang Bang

Jim Henley points us to Radley Balko’s extensive coverage of the astonishing case of Cory Maye. Here is Radley’s initial post on the case; and here are a series of posts of his updating and clarifying the details—1 2 3 4 5 6 7 and 8 (the first and last will tell you a lot). He’s been talking to a lot of people involved in the case. Here’s a link to a lot of commentary by others.

Update: I’ve updated this summary to better reflect the facts of the case as I understand them.

I’ll put the details below the fold. I urge you to read them. The guts of it is that Cory Maye is a black man on death row for shooting a white police officer dead. The officer was part of a paramilitary no-knock drug raid which broke down the door of Maye’s apartment at 11:30pm, when he and his young daughter were sleeping. The building was a duplex and the officers had a warrant for Jamie Smith, the person who lived in the other half, and for “occupants unknown” in Maye’s half. It’s not clear that the officers expected anyone to be in that half of the duplex. There’s no evidence that Maye had anything to do with Smith, and Maye did not have a criminal record. When the officers broke in, Maye woke up, took his gun and ran to his daughter’s room. When Officer Ron Jones entered the room, Maye shot him. Jones later died. There is disagreement about whether the officers announced they were the police as they broke in, and what the exact sequence of events was once they were in there. (I don’t think it’s in dispute that Maye really had no reason to expect the police would come breaking down his door at midnight.) Jones was (1) first into the apartment but (2) not part of the SWAT team—he was invited along because he tipped off the Narcotics Task Force about the suspected dealer in the other half of the duplex. He was also (3) the son of a local police chief. Mayes was tried, apparently was not well-represented, and was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death.

Here’s an excerpt from Balko’s original post. Parenthetical comments are Balko’s later corrections as he learned more:

Maye today sits on Mississippi’s death row, convicted of capital murder for shooting police officer Ron Jones. It’s probably worth mentioning that Jones is white, and Maye is black. It’s probably also worth mentioning that at the time of his death, Jones’ father was police chief of Prentiss, Mississippi, where the shooting took place. It’s probably also worth mentioning that the jury who convicted Maye was [mostly] white.

Sometime in late 2001, Officer Ron Jones collected a tip from an anonymous informant that Jamie Smith, who lived opposite Maye in a duplex, was selling drugs out of his home. Jones passed the tip to the Pearl River Basin Narcotics Task Force, a regional police agency in charge of carrying out drug raids in four surrounding counties. The task force asked Jones if he’d like to come along on the raid they’d be conducting as the result of his tip. He obliged.

On the night of December 26, the task force donned paramilitary gear, and conducted a drug raid on Smith’s house. Unfortunately, they hadn’t done their homework. The team didn’t realize that the house was a duplex, and that Maye—who had no relationship with Smith,—rented out the other side with his girlfirend and 1-year-old daughter.

As the raid on Smith commenced, some officers – including Jones—went around to what they thought was a side door to Smith’s residence, looking for a larger stash of drugs. (Note added on 12/12: This is Maye’s first attorney’s account of the raid. Police did have a warrant to both residences, though Maye wasn’t named in either) The door was actually a door to Maye’s home. Maye was home alone with his young daughter, and asleep, when one member of the SWAT team broke down the outside door. Jones, who hadn’t drawn his gun charged in, and made his way to Maye’s bedroom. Police did not announce themselves. (Note added on 12/09/05: Police said at trial that they did announce themselves before entering Maye’s apartment—Maye and his attorney say otherwise. … However, even if they did, announcing seconds before bursting in just before midnight, isn’t much better than not announcing at all. An innocent person on the other end of the raid, particularly if still asleep, has every reason to fear for his life.). Maye, fearing for his life and the safety of his daughter, fired at Jones, hitting him in the abdomen, just below his bulletproof vest. Jones died a short time later.

Maye had no criminal record, and wasn’t the target of the search warrant. Police initially concluded they had found no drugs in Maye’s side of the duplex. Then, mysteriously, police later announced they’d found “traces” of marijuana. I talked to the attorney who represented Maye at trial. She said that to her knowledge, police had found one smoked marijuana cigarette in Maye’s apartment. Regardless, since Maye wasn’t the subject of the search, whether or not he had misdemeanor amounts of drugs in his possession isn’t really relevant. What’s relevant is whether or not he reasonably believed his life was in danger. Seems pretty clear to me that that would be a reasonable assumption.

It apparently wasn’t so clear to Mississippi’s criminal justice system. In January of last year, Maye was convicted of capital murder for the shooting of Officer Jones. He was sentenced to death by lethal injection.

Let’s summarize: Cops mistakenly break down the door of a sleeping man, late at night, as part of drug raid. Turns out, the man wasn’t named in the warrant, and wasn’t a suspect. The man, frigthened for himself and his 18-month old daughter, fires at an intruder who jumps into his bedroom after the door’s been kicked in. Turns out that the man, who is black, has killed the white son of the town’s police chief. He’s later convicted and sentenced to death by a [majority] white jury. The man has no criminal record, and police rather tellingly changed their story about drugs (rather, traces of drugs) in his possession at the time of the raid.

The story gets more bizarre from there.

Jim quotes a line from Jesse Walker on the evolution of SWAT teams and no-knock raids to the effect that through the 1990s the U.S. began “turning the military into police and the police into soldiers.” This reminds me of a line from a Terry Pratchett novel, where Sam Vimes, the City Watch Commander, is having his police officers pressed into military service by Lord Rust, a power-hungry superior. He turns in his badge in protest, saying “I don’t have to take this.” “Oh, so you’d rather be a civilian, would you?” says Rust. “A watchman is a civilian!” says Vimes. A point worth remembering in the face of fetishization like this. Radley’s done a good deal of follow-up on this case and so far nothing he’s turned up suggests that Maye is anything other than the victim of an appalling travesty of justice.