Prosecutor comments in Ohio fatal traffic stop draw critics

AP News
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Posted: Aug 07, 2015 7:00 PM

CINCINNATI (AP) — The blunt prosecutor overseeing the murder case against a University of Cincinnati police officer has expressed outrage over the shooting, but some say his scathing comments could jeopardize the officer's right to a fair trial and have antagonized police.

Prosecutor Joe Deters said Samuel DuBose's shooting came after a "chicken crap" traffic stop over a missing front license plate, was "asinine" and was "without question a murder." He also said the university shouldn't be in the policing business at all.

"I think he lost his temper because Mr. DuBose wouldn't get out of the car," Deters said.

Now-fired Officer Ray Tensing has pleaded not guilty to murder and voluntary manslaughter charges. His attorney says Tensing feared he would be dragged under the car as DuBose attempted to drive away.

Eugene O'Donnell, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, thinks Deters' comments could be considered unduly prejudicial and inconsistent.

"His major headline-grabbing claim was that it was basically an act of vengeance for not cooperating," O'Donnell said. "But he also indicated it was done out of stupidity and for no reason. Which is it?"

O'Donnell believes Deters' statements could jeopardize the ex-officer's right to a fair trial.

Tensing's attorney agrees.

"He basically tried and convicted Ray Tensing without benefit of a trial," said the attorney, Stewart Mathews.

Some Cincinnati residents also are concerned that Deters' widely publicized statements could hamper efforts to find jurors without preconceived opinions.

"The prosecutor is calling it murder without leaving room for other scenarios," said Virginia Miller, 69, a Colerain Township woman who commented similarly in a letter to the editor of The Cincinnati Enquirer. "I don't see how the officer can get a fair trial anywhere."

Deters is in the 10th year of his second stint as Hamilton County's elected prosecutor after serving seven years in the 1990s. He has previously been both criticized and praised for fiery rhetoric, including his description of suspects in a July 4 attack on a white man as "lawless thugs" and "unsalvageable." The suspects are black. Deters did not mention the suspects' race, but his comments drew criticism from some black activists and in social media.

Deters spokeswoman Julie Wilson said he wouldn't comment beyond a letter published recently in the Enquirer. He wrote that his "harsh words" about Tensing weren't meant as a characterization of most officers. He said it was appropriate for Tensing to make the July 19 stop and ask DuBose to get out of the car when he didn't provide a driver's license.

"What happened after that crossed the line between good police work and committing a crime," Deters wrote.

Deters' spokeswoman says the prosecutor has received a lot of pro and con community feedback, but couldn't provide numbers.

The white officer's shooting of the unarmed black man comes amid months of national scrutiny of police dealings with African-Americans, especially those killed by officers. But authorities haven't focused on race as a factor in this death.

Phillip Lyons, dean of the College of Criminal Justice at Sam Houston State University, says the community should be pleased that Deters apparently can be objective and critical, especially if his public statements are similar to those he would make for anyone else charged with murder.

"A common criticism of prosecutors is that they work too closely with police to serve as watchdogs," Lyons said. "Clearly that's not an issue here."

Mike Allen, a criminal defense attorney and former Hamilton County prosecutor, said Deters' strong language about Tensing was appropriate. Allen agrees with the indictments but disagrees with Deters' statements about the university's police department.

The president of the Fraternal Order of Police of Ohio said he has heard from members all over the state upset over Deters' comments.

"He shouldn't have disparaged university police or the thousands of officers who follow the law by conducting traffic stops for minor misdemeanor violations," Jay McDonald said, adding that such stops have solved major crimes.