Civil Rights, Criminal Justice

The low-hanging fruit

Patrick Lynch, the president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, must work on weekends. Or so it seems.

On Sunday, his organization issued a statement about a mundane arrest in Staten Island—at least mundane in the grand scheme of New York City crime-fighting.

What was so special about the arrest? Nothing, except that the arrestee was Ramsey Orta, the 22-year-old who recorded the viral video depicting Eric Garner’s chokehold death.

The details of Orta’s arrest are unimportant because they’re irrelevant to the Garner case. But if you must know, he was arrested for illegal possession of a handgun. Orta, it turns out, also happens to have criminal record.

Of course, none of this matters. Had the arrestee been anyone else, Lynch probably would not have bothered with a press release, let alone on a day when most journalists aren’t paying attention.

But Orta is not anyone else. To Lynch, he is a “criminal” who “stand(s) to benefit the most by demonizing the good work of police officers.”

Lynch did not say what exactly Orta hopes to gain from the video. A book deal, perhaps. Or maybe a major iPhone sponsorship. Who knows. What is clear is that Orta’s act of recording Garner’s arrest is “demonizing” activity, despite court rulings—most recently from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit—that people have a right to do so under the First Amendment.

In law and politics, what Lynch did is called character assassination. More colloquially, Lynch went for the low-hanging fruit.

Orta is the low-hanging fruit because, in the event the Garner case goes to trial—either criminally against Daniel Pantaleo, the officer who employed the chokehold, or civilly against the city—the star witness won’t be a person. It will be the video.

And it’s likely that Orta, as a matter of procedure, will be called to testify to “lay a foundation” for the recording. He doesn’t have to do it—anyone who was present can attest that the recording is an accurate representation of the events—but his naysayers will want him to do it. And heaven knows that any ace defense attorney representing Pantaleo or the city would be remiss to not bring up evidence of Orta’s prior bad acts. Not because they’re relevant to the case—they’re not, in any way imaginable—but merely to question Orta’s credibility. That the jury is not to trust anything he says because he is a “criminal.” Assassinate his character.

Again, all of the above is irrelevant. What is relevant is that the video exists and millions have seen it. That chokeholds are not permitted under NYPD policy. And lest we forget: that the New York City Medical Examiner has ruled Garner’s death a homicide.

Let the investigation and the administration’s response continue. Everything else is just a sideshow.

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