Unequal Justice

You cannot slug a cop. It's that simple.

And the police cannot assault prisoners.

This simple bargain between law enforcement and the rest of us is one of the things that separates Americans from the denizens of Iraq and every other dusky pest hole.

Keeping the scales even on this bargain is apparently too big a challenge for County Attorney Andrew Thomas and his minions.

Last November, two Phoenix cops attacked a shackled and compliant prisoner. Channel 12's helicopter taped the blows while hovering over the scene of the arrest.

The Phoenix Police Department suspended the two officers: One took 40 hours on the bench, the other stood down for 200.

In a separate incident, citizen Louie Arriaga returned to court for the third time this past August.

Stopped for a traffic ticket, Arriaga ended up on the concrete grappling with a cop. Convicted of resisting arrest and aggravated assault, Arriaga got 10 years without chance of parole.

After his conviction was overturned, a jury found him guilty again this past summer. Arriaga returned to a cell to await final sentencing on January 3.

Arriaga's situation mirrors that of the two police officers. All parties found themselves on the wrong side of the bargain. Yet what all of them did is less important than the response of the law.

In an extraordinary development, Judge Andrew Klein met with prosecutors after the verdict. The prisoner had already spent two and a half years behind bars on the charges. Hadn't Arriaga served enough time, wondered the judge?

The judge's question lingered without answer for Arriaga's parents as they approached this holiday season. Apprehension and hope struggled within the retired couple.

The father, Luciano Sr., and his wife, Lydia, never gave up. Although their boy had been found guilty again in August, they had reason to believe.

Chad Schell, Arriaga's lawyer, met with the parents after the in-chambers conference with the judge at the conclusion of the trial.

"Schell told us the judge didn't see why our son needed to serve any more time in jail. The prosecutor agreed. But Schell said the police were against this," recalled Luciano Sr.

One man thought he might be able to bridge the difference with the cops.

Reverend Oscar Tillman, head of the local NAACP, attended every judicial proceeding involving Arriaga. He volunteered to speak to the police chief and get back to the parents.

Then the waiting began.

The phone in the Arriaga household finally rang on November 1 at 7 p.m.

Officers Thomas Beck and Steven Huddleston were among a group of at least half a dozen police officers who apprehended a Mexican national suspected of robbing and assaulting a pregnant woman last November. A hovering helicopter videotaped the arrest and apparent abuse. A subsequent investigation by the authorities produced the following summary by the police department:

"You [Beck] were then seen delivering what appeared to be a quick strike to the suspect's groin . . . the suspect was neither actively nor passively resisting, and his hands were cuffed behind his back."


"After the suspect was handcuffed and lying on his stomach, you [Huddleston] were observed standing on the back of the suspect's left knee with your right foot, elevating yourself and applying all your weight on the back of the suspect's knee . . . the suspect appeared to be offering no resistance, and was not moving. A few seconds later, another officer lifted the suspect by his arms and began walking him to a patrol car. You threw an elbow to the suspect's face."

When County Attorney Andrew Thomas reviewed the report sent to his office by the police department, he declined to prosecute the officers involved. A spokesman for the prosecutor explained to Arizona Republic columnist E.J. Montini, "We examined the videotape closely and concluded that a momentary stand on a leg was not criminal. A close review of the tape showed there was a shoulder-to-shoulder shove but no elbow to the face. A search for weapons did include the groin area."

You can easily make the case that prosecutors ignored the videotaped evidence, ignored the police department's own investigation of the abuse, but at the end of the day you can't help but feel that justice was done. Officers Beck and Huddleston lost their tempers and lashed out, but the department didn't cover up the incident. They suspended the cops and passed the paperwork to the prosecutor for review.

The officers did not end up in court and did not lose their careers.

And, frankly, that is a good thing.

Within moments of answering their phone, the Arriagas' Thanksgiving plans took on a rapturous note.

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Michael Lacey
Contact: Michael Lacey