An off-duty police officer gets blitzed at a downtown bar in the wee hours of the morning and ends up chasing after a guy he says tried to steal his truck. He catches the guy on a slope above a residential neighborhood and fires five bullets. One catches the alleged thief in the side of the head. At least one zings down into the sleepy neighborhood below, barreling through the outside wall of a house and into the kitchen.
Eight months later, Shonto Pete (the guy who allegedly took the truck) was acquitted of the theft charge, the jurors saying there was no evidence even placing him inside the truck. And last week, Jay Olsen (the off-duty police officer) was cleared of charges related to shooting Pete.
So if Pete didn’t steal the truck, and Olsen didn’t actually assault him, then what the hell is going on? Did anything actually happen?
The February 2007 incident involving Shonto Pete and officer Jay Olsen couldn’t have gotten much weirder — or more loaded. The affair involved a cop and a Navajo Indian, both drunk. They met outside an Oscar party at a gay bar. A chase ensued. Pete got shot in the head with a .40-caliber hollow point bullet and miraculously survived.
You can’t make this stuff up.
Things only got weirder once Olsen’s trial began at the end of last month, two years after the incident took place. The prosecution alleged Olsen was a reckless drunk who, in a rage, tried to end Pete’s life. Olsen’s team said the cop was afraid for his life.
Pete’s lawyer pointed out that Pete, now 29, was armed only with a keychain pocket knife, and that the bullet wound was to the back of his head, meaning Olsen fired while Pete ran away.
Jurors weren’t allowed to hear that Pete had been acquitted of the truck theft, for what that’s worth. They were, however, allowed to hear the testimony of a police dispatcher who said Pete had confessed to the truck theft in a 911 call, even though the tape recording of that call had mysteriously disappeared.
Prosecutors pointed out that Olsen didn’t call police for 15 minutes after the shooting, suggesting he was already piecing together a self-defense case.
Olsen then made headlines by testifying that his reluctance had something to do with his colleagues finding out he’d been hanging out at Dempsey’s at 4 in the morning — indeed, he said, he’s been a closeted gay man for his entire 16-year career on the force.
Seriously: Did everybody miss the fact that this all started outside an Oscar party at Dempsey’s?
That 12 jurors ultimately cleared Olsen of all charges fanned flames of suspicion in a city that’s seen a number of police fiascos in the last few years. (Indeed, the same issue of the Spokesman-Review that announced Olsen’s acquittal also carried news of a lawsuit in the police-related death of Otto Zehm in 2006.)
“We’ll see what happens when I chase a guy through town, drunk, and start shooting at someone,” wrote a commenter to KREM.com in the immediate aftermath of the verdict. “It’s open season as far as I’m concerned!”
“Remember, administration of the law is not necessarily the administration of justice,” wrote the blogger at Shallow Cogitations, under the post title, “Who’s Got Your Back?”
But justice isn’t always that simple, points out Gonzaga law professor David DeWolf, who followed the trial. Courts don’t always dictate real, actual truths. (Olsen attorney Rob Cossey says he still believes Pete stole the truck; Pete’s attorneys surely still believe Pete was under attack.) Indeed, DeWolf points out that the two contradictory verdicts were the product of two separate juries in two separate criminal trials. Unlike in civil trials, where a mere “preponderance” (or majority) of evidence is enough to assign guilt, in criminal trials the prosecution has to prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” that the defendant is guilty.
“The jury apparently thought there was enough doubt on [this] one,” he says of the decision not to convict Olsen. “Maybe if one jury were trying both cases, they would feel some pressure to think, ‘One of these two things has to be true.’ But it may also be that both juries were thinking along the same lines: This was not Shonto Pete’s best night. He’s no knight in shining white armor. And Olsen, he’s not Spokane’s finest. … But that’s different from saying, ‘You’re a bad guy. You go to jail.’”
What’s left, though, is a weird feeling that nothing was really resolved. Two guys got drunk and one guy shot the other in the head. And now they’re both walking away?
“There is an understandable desire to have a degree of moral closure on things. A bad thing happened … [but] maybe the good guy’s actually the bad guy, and vice versa. We hate that,” says DeWolf. “To the extent that these two verdicts present a degree of cognitive dissonance, we want to scratch that itch. But sometimes that’s the way life is, and the jury verdicts reflect that sort of ambiguity.”
The cognitive dissonance won’t likely be clearing up anytime soon. While the criminal trial against Olsen may have ended last week, the story’s not over. After the acquittal, Olsen — who had been on unpaid layoff since the incident two years ago — was immediately reinstated as a city employee and then just as immediately put on administrative leave with the force. He’ll be awarded $152,510 in back pay, according to city officials, but he’ll also now undergo an internal investigation to determine whether he keeps his badge and department-issue gun. City spokeswoman Marlene Feist says that process should take three to four weeks.
Meanwhile, there could be more legal action. In December, Pete filed with the city a $750,000 claim for damages. The city dismissed the claim, which could lead to a lawsuit down the road. Pete and Chicago civil rights attorney Blake Horwitz also filed a federal civil rights claim against Olsen. Should the claim produce a trial, Horwitz would have to prove that Olsen violated Pete’s civil rights while acting as an employee of the city. Because it’s a civil case, a jury would only have to see a preponderance of evidence to side with Pete (setting up a kind of O.J. situation).
But even David Partovi, Pete’s lawyer in the truck theft trial, says it could be a tough case to prove. The burden of proof may be lower, he says, but in civil rights cases you have to prove more than just negligence. “You have to prove policies that form a pattern of civil rights depredations, or you prove that the officer went above and beyond what was necessary to take away his civil rights. It’s more than just failing to follow procedures,” he says. “[But Olsen] never said, ‘Stop, police, you’re under arrest.’ He never called for backup. He just chased him down as a citizen.”
DeWolf says any number of wild cards would be in play during a civil rights case. “The jury could see it as, ‘Hey, if somebody was trying to steal my truck, I’d do that, too.’ Or, ‘There go those trigger-happy police,’” he says. “It’s hard to tell who’s got the moral high ground. We’re not prepared to say there was one innocent victim and one criminal wrongdoing here. It was kind of a series of missteps.
“It certainly lends itself to a variety of different interpretations.”