The events of this past week's inquest into the death of Robert Lee Thomas Sr., at the hands of an off-duty King County Sheriff's deputy, Melvin Miller, has been fairly predictable. Most opinions on these types of inquests are also predictable, including, usually, mine. I don't feel a need to share mine every time one happens—though if I did, if I simply trotted out the same column each time, I could add lots of extra vacation time each year. Call my editor from Reno: "Yeah, just run the cop shooting one. I think it's column No. 6."
So I was gonna skip it, probably to the delight of all concerned, when Mr. Miller, on his first day on the stand, unloads this gem: When he went to confront the soon-to-be-dead Robert Lee Thomas Sr.—after a concerned suburban neighbor called him ("There's a pickup truck hanging around by that driveway, and it's got two black men in it! Could you go check it out?")—when he responded, as a good neighbor, to that request by strapping a semiautomatic handgun into his waistband and going for a stroll, he was acting not as a law enforcement officer, but as a private citizen.
It was Neighbor Miller—not Officer Miller—who confronted Robert Lee Thomas Sr.; his son, Robert Jr.; and Gina Munnell.
Well. That changes everything.
Or it should, anyway. Which is to say, it shouldn't, but it does, and it won't.
It shouldn't: Officers of the law shouldn't be treated differently than private citizens when killings occur. Same presumption of innocence, same entitlement to a fair trial, same public response. That shouldn't be different.
But it does, of course: It changes everything. Cops in our society are never private citizens—only cops or off-duty cops. It is like that. It's one of the responsibilities, and burdens, of a job they're paid well for.
And it won't. The fact that Miller says he acted as a civilian won't matter, because he takes the stand as Officer Miller. Statistically, at least, it is certain that the inquest into Thomas Sr.'s death will not result in the King County prosecutor filing charges against Officer Miller. It hasn't happened even once in the more than 75 inquests in the last 20 years where an officer in our county has figured in a civilian death. Not even once.
How is it different? If Miller were a private citizen, it wouldn't have been an inquest at all—it would have been a criminal trial, and Miller would be more likely to be convicted of something, not cleared. It'd be a trial, not an inquest; the rules are different, the mentality is different.
There's an expectation by many within our criminal justice system, and wired into the system itself, that a defendant is guilty simply because charges were brought. The countless biases that thus kick in are very different.
If suburban neighbor Miller marched out, semiautomatic handgun in hand, to confront a lost motorist, and that motorist died, the testimony of eyewitnesses and the victim's relatives—and Thomas' son is both—would carry more weight and credibility than the testimony of Miller—with the judge, jury, and the public.
Citizen Miller probably wouldn't be known to the public but would be a fleeting figure in a personal tragedy, not another lightning rod for local police and race relations.
Citizen Miller probably wouldn't be as experienced and comfortable in court. He certainly wouldn't attract the best lawyers and the automatic allegiance of every law enforcement officer in the region, from the newest recruit to the elected sheriff.
A Citizen Miller might have had a concealed semiautomatic—might even know how to use it well—but he wouldn't have had years of taxpayer-funded training, nor the mentality that comes with it. He wouldn't have spent his days revered by some, feared and hated by others, because of his job. Citizen Miller would almost certainly not have opened fire almost immediately if—the point is disputed by Thomas Jr.—the victim showed a gun. Citizen Miller would be far less likely to be shooting to kill.
And he would have reason to fear a conviction.
By all means, treat Melvin Miller as the private citizen he says he acted as—not as a man statistically impossible to convict because of his job. Cops are human beings, not infallible robots; especially in split-second decisions, they aren't always right. They can't be. It is dead certain that local cops have killed and been unjustly exonerated—we simply don't know which ones. Our inquest system doesn't ask.
We veer wildly between extremes: the guaranteed exonerations of police killings and the railroadings often given ordinary criminal defendants. Truth and justice would, over time, without question convict fewer private citizens and more cops. They could scarcely do otherwise.
Miller says he acted as a private citizen. Private citizens should be so lucky.