When Chicago Police Detective Dante Servin heads to court next January for the fatal shooting of Rekia Boyd, a 22-year-old unarmed black woman, he will be the first CPD officer in more than 17 years to be tried for a shooting death.
Servin appeared Wednesday in a Cook County court, where his case was delayed until Jan. 21, 2015 -- more than a year after his indictment on charges of involuntary manslaughter, reckless discharge of a firearm and reckless conduct in connection with Boyd’s death. Earlier this year, the city paid Boyd's family a $4.5 million wrongful death settlement.
A police officer facing trial over a fatal shooting is historically rare in Chicago -- or the rest of the country, for that matter. Servin’s case bucks the trend of police ducking indictment for the deaths of civilians, especially blacks.
Also on Wednesday, a grand jury declined to indict a New York City Police Department officer in the death of 45-year-old Eric Garner, a black man who died after being placed in a chokehold. A little more than a week earlier, on Nov. 24, a grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri, chose not to indict the police officer who fatally shot unarmed black teen Michael Brown.
'AN EXTREME DOUBLE STANDARD'
In July 1995, Joseph Gould, a black 36-year-old homeless Chicago newspaper vendor, was shot and killed by Gregory Becker, a white, off-duty Chicago police officer. Becker served four years in jail after a jury found him guilty of involuntary manslaughter and armed violence in 1997, though an Illinois appellate court later overturned the conviction, claiming the two charges were inconsistent.
That was the last time a Chicago police officer was tried over a shooting.
“It’s a systemic problem that the prosecutors are part of the justice system which does not value African-American or other people of color’s lives when they’re taken by the police,” Attorney Flint Taylor of the Chicago-based People’s Law Office told The Huffington Post. “There’s an extreme double standard when it comes to prosecution of police officers regarding murder, torture or anything like that.”
Taylor, whose office specializes in cases related to police violence and civil rights, said it's rare for police officers to face trial for shootings deaths because prosecutors are often closely aligned with the police.
"In essence, they don’t want to prosecute. They rely on police for testimony, so it’s difficult to get a prosecution,” Taylor said. “There’s an old saying lawyers have that 'a prosecutor can indict a ham sandwich,' meaning if [prosecutors] want an indictment, they can get it."
“But it’s very unequal in who they prosecute and why they prosecute,” he added. “At the very bottom of the ladder is police who kill poor people of color.”
A 'PERFECT VICTIM'
Though the officers connected to the deaths of Garner and Brown were not indicted, Taylor said there are three key factors at play that distinguish Servin's case from other police-involved killings of unarmed black citizens.
“Boyd was a 'perfect victim’: She had no gun, she wasn’t threatening cops and they didn’t think she had a weapon,” Taylor said. “It's hard for cops to make a bad story [about her] out of that."
Boyd was shot in the back of the head in March 2012 while she was with a group of friends near a park in Chicago's West Side.
Witnesses said Servin and a man from Boyd’s group got into a verbal altercation over noise. From his unmarked car, Servin then turned the wrong way on a one-way street and fired five rounds over his left shoulder out the window; one struck a man in the hand, while the other struck Boyd in the back of the head. She would die less than 24 hours later.
Police initially claimed a man in the group approached Servin with a weapon, which prompted Servin to fire, "fearing for his life." The Independent Police Review Authority later stated they found no weapon at the scene and that the man was reportedly holding only a cell phone.
In the case of both Becker and Servin, both detectives were off-duty at the time of the shootings, something Taylor said is a second important factor.
“An off-duty nature doesn’t implicate police activity,” Taylor said. “Therefore, the prosecutor may be more apt to pursue a case if the cop was off-duty."
The third factor distinguishing the Servin case, according to Taylor, is alcohol.
Witness Antonio Cross, the man Servin shot in the hand, claimed the off-duty detective was drunk when he fired on the group.
“Sometimes they don’t do an alcohol blood level test on cops,” Taylor said. “If a cop wasn’t arrested on the scene, he may just go home. And then there’s only testimony. They may only face an administrative investigation.”
Taylor warned that despite the fact that Servin faces a trial sometime in 2015, "when they do bring charges, they often undercharge."
In Illinois, involuntary manslaughter is a class-three felony. If convicted of this offense, Servin could be sentenced to two to five years in prison.