The Michigan Appeals Court has upheld the decision by Judge Cynthia Gray-Hathaway to dismiss the most serious charge against former Detroit Police Officer Joseph Weekley, who is accused of shooting and killing 7-year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones. The Michigan Appeals Court judges found that they disagreed with the judge’s decision, but could not review the decision because it was officially entered into the court filings. They made no mention of a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling on directed verdicts.
Judge Gray-Hathaway tossed the involuntary manslaughter charge, which prompted prosecutors to file an emergency appeal, which halted the trial. The dismissal was considered by many to be a surprise.
Weekley’s three-week trial is the result of a May 2010 police raid that resulted in Aiyana Stanley-Jones, who was sleeping on a couch, being shot and killed. Weekley led the Detroit Police Special Response Team into Aiyana’s home during a murder investigation. The police believed that their suspect was hiding out in the home, it turns out he wasn’t. Weekley claims that Stanley-Jones’ grandmother struggled with him causing his firearm to discharge. Other officers have testified they did not see that happen, but that the scene was very chaotic. Prosecutors allege that Weekley disregarded proper training and procedure especially when he kept his finger on the trigger of his gun.
In recent months, police militarization and the exponential rise in the disproportionate use of SWAT raids has caught the public’s attention. Weekley’s SWAT team was being followed by The First 48’s reality show crew. Weekley still faces careless discharge of a firearm. Weekley’s first trial resulted in a hung jury earlier this year.
After the prosecution rested, the defense asked the judge to dismiss the charge because prosecutors failed to show that Weekley had intentionally caused a danger that resulted in the child’s death. The judge agreed saying that the law required her to instruct the jury that he had acted with gross negligence, willfully putting the victim in danger.
“Gross negligence means more than carelessness; it means willfully disregarding the safety of others,” Hathaway said, “The key word here is ‘gross negligence.’ I don’t see evidence that the defendant willfully disregarded the results of others. If I have to err on one side or another, I’m going to err on the side of the defense.”
After the judge granted Steve Fishman’s defense motion for a directed verdict, assistant Wayne County prosecutor Robert Moran objected on the grounds that the jury should decide whether Weekley acted willfully. The appeal was largely expected to fail from the beginning because the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2013 that once a judge grants a directed verdict it cannot be appealed by the prosecution (Evans v. Michigan). The Supreme Court said 8 – 1 that a directed verdict cannot be appealed because that would constitute double jeopardy.
Protestors immediately reacted negatively to the judge’s ruling. Roland Lawrence, chairman of the Justice for Aiyana Jones Committee said that the judge “totally lost sight of why Weekley is on trial: for recklessly killing a baby…Surely, the death of a baby by a well-trained police force must be deemed unacceptable in a civilized society.”
Prosecutors are considering an appeal to the Michigan Supreme Court. The trial is expected to begin again on Tuesday.
The main issue in the dismissal was the word “willful” in the definition of involuntary manslaughter. The defense successfully argued before the trial judge that Weekley did not knowingly create the danger nor did he intentionally cause injury. The prosecution believes that they only need to prove the elements of gross negligence: Weekley knew ordinary care was required to avoid injuring others; he could have avoided injuring the victim by using ordinary care; and that Weekley failed to use ordinary care.