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Morning News’ Flip-Flop on Cop Murder Charges Is Strictly Partisan Politics

Dallas County District Attorney John CreuzotEXPAND
Dallas County District Attorney John Creuzot
Dallas County District Attorney
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Help me keep track of The Dallas Morning News editorial page here. I guess I’m just confused. First, let’s look at murders.

The paper’s editorial page last week said the killing of 28-year-old Atatiana Jefferson in her own home by a Fort Worth police officer was one of those important moments “that mark not just turning points in history, but points where it is evident that leaders must step forward and do the work to change the course of history.”

Therefore, the editorial page said, “The murder charge against former Fort Worth police officer Aaron Dean, who this weekend shot and killed Atatiana Jefferson in her home, is one of these moments. The charge Dean now faces is what the facts, as they are known, appear to demand.”

Whether you agree or disagree with that assertion, please travel back in time with me. We don’t have to journey far. Less than a year ago, the same newspaper castigated Dallas County District Attorney John Creuzot for seeking a murder charge against former Dallas police officer Amber Guyger in the September 2018 shooting death of Botham Jean.

On Nov. 19, 2018, the editorial page said murder was too tough a charge for Guyger and that Creuzot should go for manslaughter instead: “We caution him to be mindful that in going for the most serious charge in this terrible and bizarre case, he takes a greater risk of a jury returning a not guilty verdict.

“Convicting on a murder charge,” the paper said, “with its stiffer sentence, will be a tougher case to win, especially when a police officer is involved — and especially when there are so many questions surrounding the circumstances of the shooting.”

Of course, since then, Guyger has been convicted on the murder charge that Creuzot brought against her. I have been eagerly awaiting the editorial in which The Dallas Morning News eats just a tiny bit of crow, not the whole crow by any means, maybe a small spit-roasted breast of crow or at least a boiled leg to acknowledge that Creuzot turned out to be right and the paper wrong.

Oh, I say, “eagerly awaiting,” but we both know that isn’t true. Cows will fly first. I know that. What I’m really trying to do is figure out the difference and why the paper’s thinking was not flipped exactly the other way.

Guyger, where they opposed a charge of murder, seems like the much more likely case for a murder charge. There was never any indication that the victim in that case presented a credible threat to the police officer’s life, only her own wrong impression that he was inside her own apartment, not his, and therefore had to be an intruder.

In the Jefferson case in Fort Worth, the murder warrant itself states that a witness saw Jefferson point a gun at the police officer split seconds before he shot her. She was in her own home. She had a right to possess and use a gun in her home. The fact that she apparently aimed her gun at the police officer doesn’t automatically let the former officer off the hook. But it goes a long way toward an argument of self-defense.

I’m not trying to settle the legal question. I’m trying to figure out the Morning News. Their argument for a manslaughter charge in Guyger was based on their assessment of the easiest conviction to get. Their argument for an easy conviction came from their feeling that, “The outcome of this case is too important for Jean’s family — and Dallas — to heal and move forward.”

Nobody is against healing and moving forward, but healing and moving forward don’t have much to do with guilt or innocence. It’s a little queasy-making to see a newspaper editorial page call for a conviction in a criminal case for transparently political and social ends.

And then the flip. Creuzot was wrong to go for murder in Guyger, they said. But Tarrant County was right to go for it in a much muddier case there. Help me figure that out.

Here’s another possible clue. At the outset of the Guyger trial, the editorial page jumped on Creuzot with both tennis shoes when he was accused by Guyger’s defense team of violating a gag order in the trial: “What were you thinking?” the paper demanded.

Creuzot had spoken briefly to a TV reporter about his decision to go for a murder charge instead of manslaughter. The defense said his remarks violated a gag order imposed Jan. 8 by the judge. The paper said, “Creuzot should have understood that the gag order extended to him just as it applies to the legal teams in the courtroom.”

Well, wait a minute. In the first place, we in the press usually are not big fans of gag orders. Not too many years ago, I seem to remember the Morning News being a major champion of free speech in Texas, not so much a defender of gag orders.

Former Dallas police officer Amber Guyger walks with her attorneys into the Frank Crowley Courts Building.EXPAND
Former Dallas police officer Amber Guyger walks with her attorneys into the Frank Crowley Courts Building.
Nathan Hunsinger

The fact is, a bunch of arguments can be made that Creuzot, who faces a contempt hearing, will come out of this like a rose. The judge’s gag order didn’t say that no one connected with the trial could talk about anything ever. The language of the gag order loosely addressed things like statements by the defendant or witnesses, nature of evidence, opinions of guilt or innocence.

In fact, the gag order is so loose that it may not pass constitutional muster, if it comes to that. The important case-law precedent here is about a gang fight in Houston in 2006 in which a 16-year-old girl stabbed and killed a 15-year-old boy. In that case, called “In Re Benton,” the state asked for a gag order to tame a flamboyant defense lawyer. The judge granted it.

But a higher court ruled that the gag order did not meet the very stringent requirements for a gag order under the U.S. and Texas constitutions. A judge is not allowed, the court said, to assume that all publicity, even sometimes lurid publicity, is automatically harmful enough to justify abrogating First Amendment speech rights: “Even pervasive and concentrated publicity is not prejudicial per se,” the court said.

Hey, I'm no judge. I’m just saying I didn’t have to scratch around long to find some pretty cool arguments against the Guyger gag order and in defense of Creuzot. I am wondering, therefore, why a major American newspaper jumps to the defense of a gag order and jumps on the back of a public official who may or may not have even violated it in the first place.

So here we are. The paper’s editorial page is against murder charges when Creuzot is for them, but the page favors murder charges when Creuzot is not involved.

It is all for transparency, sunshine and free speech as long as Creuzot isn’t the one speaking, but it is in favor of strict adherence to gag orders, even legally dodgy ones, if Creuzot is the one speaking. Is there a bread crumb trail through this maze?

When the Morning News endorsed Hillary Clinton against Trump in 2016, many of its conservative older readers  — a demographic known in the business as “the golden oldies” — were enraged. Not too much later, longtime, erudite and moderate editorial page director Keven Ann Willey resigned. She was replaced by Brendan Miniter, who had been a writer for the George W. Bush Institute.

At that point, the editorial page took a decided, predictable swerve to the right, which is an editorial page’s prerogative, after all, especially if that’s the course correction called for by the people at the top, the ones who sign the paychecks.

The anomalous thing, it seemed to me, was that editorial page didn’t just ooch back over to the right where it had been anyway pre-Willey. In a city where most of day-to-day politics is relatively non-partisan, the editorial age under Miniter became much more of a partisan Republican Party screed.

Nowhere has that been more visible than in its treatment of Creuzot, a Democrat, who beat the paper’s favored Republican candidate, in the phrase of Joe Biden, “like a drum” in the November 2018 election. Since Creuzot took office, in fact, he has not been able to do anything right in the opinion of The Dallas Morning News.

A stunning example occurred last April, when the editorial page twisted itself in knots to deliberately misrepresent a Creuzot initiative on economic crime and homelessness. Creuzot announced new policies aimed at ending the use of his own office but also cops, jails and the criminal justice system as primary go-to tools for dealing with extreme poverty. In doing so, he made it clear he was not giving anybody a free pass to commit brazen crime.

The Morning News editorial put exactly the opposite spin on his words, suggesting un-subtly to its beloved golden oldie readers that Creuzot might be siccing the criminal hordes on them: “It has the potential,” the paper said of Creuzot’s new policy, “to send the wrong message about our tolerance for any crime in this county.

“We worry about the new policy creating a system that tells petty criminals their bad acts are OK and that demands police officers look the other way.”

Like all American cities, Dallas must deal with an ever worsening homeless situation. Creuzot was no longer willing to be the crutch that enables Dallas to delay finding effective, humane solutions. And for that, he’s the editorial page’s favorite bad guy. Again.

You know what I see? You know what I think the pattern is? The pattern is an amoral, opportunistic partisanship that will play any issue and all issues to produce the results they want at the bottom of the page. More Republicans. More golden oldies. Less Creuzot.

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