Friday, October 05, 2007

Another Duke Lacrosse Injustice?

Phillip Cooney, a Georgetown University sophomore, has seen his life turned upside down in the past week after a gay student at the university accused him of a hate crime attack on him on September 9. The circumstances under which the victim singled him out raises plenty of concern that he may be the victim of mistaken identity. Making matters worse is the manner in which the story is being trumped by folks on the left because of who Cooney's father is. Phillip Cooney, Sr. served as White House Council on Environmental Quality chief of staff in the Bush administration.

D.C. Metropolitan police have charged Cooney for simple assault with hate/bias specification. The victim accuses Cooney of attacking him because of his sexual orientation. The police affidavit states:

"[T]he victim reported that at 2:30 a.m. on Sept. 9, while walking northbound on the 3600 block of O Street, he heard Cooney, who was with another individual, yell, “Look at macho man Randy Savage with his tank top. Where you going, faggot?” The victim reported in the MPD incident report that the suspect also said, “You’re so buff.” The victim said that he ignored the comments and continued walking but noticed that the two suspects were following him, and one of them called out, “Yo faggot, what are you looking at?” He said in the affidavit that as he turned onto 36th Street, Cooney tackled him from behind and punched him around the head with closed fists. The victim reported in the affidavit that he “made a point to remember the face and description of the defendant.”

According to the police report, the victim was treated for "minor injuries". What is particularly troubling is the manner in which the accused was identified by his victim. "The affidavit said that the victim learned from a friend that a fellow student who matched the description provided by the victim was discussing the incident during a class," the Hoya reports. "The friend also noted the initials monogrammed on the student’s backpack." "The victim went on to search through his friend’s Facebook friends and identified Cooney through his pictures." "After MPD received and confirmed Cooney’s identification information, it received a subpoena from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for Cooney’s student identification photo." "The affidavit said that the victim was presented with nine photos and identified Cooney as the assailant," Of course, he recognized the same guy his friend helped him pick out his Facebook friends.

According to Cooney's attorney, at no time did police question Cooney before charging him with the crime. “The police investigation was nothing,” Danny Onorato said. “You have a complaining witness who says he saw someone who he thought may have attacked him vis-a-vis the Web. That’s the investigation. Did they try to talk to Mr. Cooney before the investigation? No. Would you expect the police to do that? Yes.” So someone overhears a conversation which he thinks might be referring to the attack on his friend, sees initials on the guy's backpack, looks for someone on Facebook whose initials match, shows the victim the picture, and he declares that's the attacker. No surprise then that he identifies him after being shown the accused's student identification photo. Cooney's attorney is naturally comparing his client's case to the discredited prosecution of three Duke University Lacrosse players, who were cleared of rape charges before a North Carolina prosecutor was forced to resign from his job.

Friends of Cooney's, including at least one gay friend, challenge the notion he could be the attacker. The Hoya interviewed Cooney's gay friend and another close friend, who offer this defense for him:

Eric Pallotta (MSB ’07), an openly gay friend of Cooney’s from the rugby team and a former business director of THE HOYA, said that he spent a significant amount of time with Cooney last year.

“We would hang out on a social basis frequently, and he was never uncomfortable around me, he was never hostile in any way. He was always a sweet kid,” Pallotta said. “There’s nothing in my experiences with him or knowing his background and education that would indicate any tendency of homophobia or violence in general.”

Pat DePoy (COL ’09), another of Cooney’s friends from the rugby team, said he was advised by Onorato not to speak directly about the incident, but he said that Cooney is one of the “nicest, sweetest” individuals and that Cooney’s friends and the rugby team is “completely supportive” of both Cooney and the victim.

“I just want to emphasize that we know that when crimes like this happen, people get emotional, but everyone in this country is innocent until proven guilty, so we cannot jump to conclusions,” he said. “The facts will come out at the trial.”

The left has been very quick to villify Cooney, primarily because his father served in the Bush administration. Cooney is an even more attractive target, in particular, because of the global warming controversy in which his father was embroiled. PageoneQ ran the headline, "DC Bashing Suspect Has Ties To Bush". Students at Georgetown rallied against the university's administration, claiming it withheld information about the alleged hate crime. The victim's name is not being released, while Cooney has been pilloried on campus. Some voices of reason are urging caution in the case. Student D.J. McLaughlin writes of Cooney's plight :

A Google search of Phillip Cooney will turn up news reports condemning him as the perpetrator of intolerable acts of hate. Most people will read these and assume guilt until proven otherwise; this is human nature. We take an idea, and we run with it. But, if Cooney is acquitted of the charges, what will happen? Another Google search will possibly find a small article stating that he was eventually found innocent — if in fact he is — but it will be passed over as minutiae with minimal media coverage. Nevertheless, he has been labeled. This label will continue to follow him unless students, the university and the media separate what happened, something we know, from who did it, something we have a justice system to determine.

McLaughlin is probably right. Cooney will go through his life with the label of gay basher whether he is ultimately guilty of this crime or not. I just find it deeply disturbing that law enforcement would charge Cooney on a identification made under these highly suggestive circumstances without even bothering to interview the accused and allowing him an opportunity to provide an alibi. Sloppy police work may have just destroyed this young man's life, and that's simply inexcusable.


Anonymous said...

and you point is.....when you are a hater, you are a hater. plain and simple

Anonymous said...

These cases could likely lead to a big change in law enforcement. Currently, as long as there is reasonable suspicion, the cops can get a warrant and arrest. What I want to know is did they do any digging at all into the suspect's history? I can see not wanting to talk to someone, and they don't really have to do that. Hopefully they at least did everything but talk to him: Get credit card statements, see if he made any purchases in the area. Get camera footage from the area, was he walking around the area. Etc. etc..

The problem we have now is that once you are arrested, if your any bit of high profile, then entire incident is now splashed upon the net, meaning it is no longer a few area newspapers that notify everyone in a small geographical area, it is world wide information. While arrest have always been public record, maybe it is time to change that? Maybe it is time to require more than just reasonable suspicion to get a warrant?

Anonymous said...

This is the first sane thing I've read about this case. Thank you. While we're at it, could someone explain to me how the victim of this attack is entitled to destroy Cooney's life with these accusations but somehow cannot be identified? This isn't a child or a rape victim, which are the only two categories of cases in which the media refrains from identifying a victim. If there is to be a debate on the blogs (and that is inevitable), the debate needs to be informed with all the relevant information.

Anonymous said...

In the Hoya today October 16 2007. Accused hate crime perpetrator passes Polygraph test. Victims story denied by victims friend. Police knew about lack of corroborating witness in affidavit before arrest. A police interview and an interview with defense attorney both reveal that no conversation was overheard by the victims friend as alleged in victims affidavit. Plea bargain including expunging record rejected by accused.

A rush to judgment by police to accept an unsubstantiated account of events has led to this injustice. Further Investigation might have produced other disquieting inconsistencies. The only people on the record and in the open all state that the behavior does not fit the accused. Maybe the court will come to same conclusion soon.

Anonymous said...

Does anyone know how the hearing scheduled for Dec. 20th came out?

Anonymous said...

Trial for Cooney is set to begin in D.C. Superior Court on May 21.

The judge will rule on motions then.

Don't know if this is the usual prosecution ploy to drag everything out for as long as possible, in order to pressure the defendant (who is spending money all the while on lawyers) to plead;

or if it is simply the unwillingness of the DA to ever admit to an error;

or if there is really something to the case.

DC courts, however, have not done much in the past to give me confidence in their ability to be non-political in their verdicts.