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Try & Try (Him) Again

By Kathy Y. Wilson · July 4th, 2002 · Your Negro Tour Guide
Cops talk too much. Like gossipy hens across the backyard clothesline, they squawk about what went down with this perp and what was done to that one.

I'm betting that, right about now, Robert Jorg wishes he'd kept his trap shut about what kind of hold he used on Roger Owensby Jr. that fitful evening. Owensby died Nov. 7, 2000 of mechanical asphyxia during a takedown in the parking lot of a Roselawn gas station by Jorg, then a Cincinnati officer, and officers Patrick Caton and David Hunter Jr.

Jorg was closest to Owensby. Directly on top of him.

When Officer Victor Spellen showed up moments after the arrest, Jorg replayed the tight restraint he used on Owensby. During Jorg's trial last October for assault and involuntary manslaughter, however, Spellen testified that Jorg used a loose 'head wrap' restraint on Owensby.

Spellen later flipped, telling internal investigators he'd lied to protect Jorg, his training officer.

If you're keeping score, Spellen is black, Jorg is white and Owensby was black, as are the two jurors who held out for a guilty verdict on involuntary manslaughter. More on that in a minute.

What goes through a cop's head during a pursuit and takedown? What are cops thinking when they decide use of physical force is appropriate? And who knows what goes through a cop's head when he decides, in the heat of the moment and tanked up on adrenaline, to tell another cop the truth?

Does the cop assume his fellow officer won't later cross that thin blue line and come clean with crime-scene details? Or does he look into the face of the man he helped train and assume the conversation will remain between them and follow them to their graves or, scarier still, to other police forces?

By now you've figured out that, although April 2001 is long gone (as are Jorg and Stephen Roach, the former Cincinnati cop who killed Timothy Thomas), we're still stuck in the quicksand-like aftermath of their actions.

We might well be for years to come.

That's because the written and unwritten rules governing American police (mis)conduct might as well be transcribed in Chinese for as much as they deploy justice in real time.

Take police loyalty, which transcends race, as in the case of Jorg and Spellen.

Spellen thought he was doing a good thing when he lied for Jorg. Forget a dead man. Forget justice. Forget telling the truth and letting the process come down on one side or the other. Spellen thought he'd help it along by corkscrewing the truth.

What are the implications when a black man lies to save the skin of a white cop implicated in the death of a black man in a city ignorant to its racial strife? More profound, what are the implications when two black jurors hold out for Jorg's conviction only to be steamrolled over by the 10 white jurors who just want the whole thing over with?

I'll tell you. The implications in the former are that black life is indeed expendable when blacks cannot and will not stand up to defend it and instead fall for the okey-doke of uniform, blind loyalty. No wonder we drop like flies.

In the latter, the implication is, 'Why bother?' It's why black folks mistrust direct inclusion in the doo-doo process of justice. We often end up in it face down and ass out.

Last month Jorg filed a $30 million federal lawsuit, claiming prosecutors hung him out to dry as a 'scapegoat' in Owensby's death. Jorg says city and county officials blamed him as a means to 'appease' Negroes.

If that's so, I say we file a lawsuit against the judges and jurors who let Jorg and Roach off the hook. That was textbook appeasement we're still paying for in mistrust, hostility, boycotts and empty prayer fests.

Those suits wouldn't have any teeth, of course, and they'd get us nowhere. Retrying Jorg, however, would turn this train around and show the citizenry that Cincinnati is serious about its brand of better-late-than-hardly-ever justice.

The U.S. Department of Justice could file federal civil rights charges against Jorg. Now that Spellen has recanted, Hamilton County Prosecutor Mike Allen could retry Jorg on involuntary manslaughter charges.

And why not? Spellen's truth-telling is like saying he not only found the murder weapon but he knew where it was all along.

As for Spellen, he's exempt from perjury prosecution because he signed a police document granting him immunity when he finally spoke truth to police investigators.

As for Jorg, he's an artful dodger. He skated off the city force and avoided lingering investigative questions. He's now sunning himself in downtown Pierce Township as a newbie on their force, welcomed by former Cincinnati Assistant Chief and current Township Chief James Smith.

As for Owensby, he's dead.

Hear Kathy's commentaries on National Public Radio's All Things Considered.


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