News hits spent last week over at the Frank Murphy Hall of Justice taking in the trial of Diane Bukowski, a freelance reporter for the Michigan Citizen arrested last November after she allegedly crossed a police line to take photos of a double-fatal motorcycle accident.
After nearly two days of deliberation, the jury found her guilty on two counts of breaking a broadly written statute that prohibits resisting arrest or obstructing justice or endangering an officer.
Despite the unanimous verdict, Bukowski continues to maintain her innocence and says an appeal is already being planned.
For the prosecution, it was kind of like throwing spaghetti against the wall, hoping something would stick. A Fox 2 news camera caught Bukowski's arrest, and there was nothing on the tape that looked much like resisting arrest to us. At most, according to a demonstration in court provided by one of the arresting officers, Bukowski wriggled for a moment. She testified that the she was writhing in pain. At 60 years old and suffering from scoliosis, Bukowski was handled in a way that hurt, and reacted by squirming a bit, she claimed.
As for endangering an officer, the prosecution floated the theory that, because there was an unruly crowd gathered at the accident scene, and the cops were spread thin trying to keep things under control, the arrest of Bukowski meant fewer officers were available to deal with a dicey situation, thereby putting all the cops in unnecessary danger.
The obstruction charge covers the knowing failure to heed a lawful command, and the yellow tape bearing the words "Police Line — Do Not Cross" constituted such a command. Bukowski maintained that there was no police tape up in the area she was taking photographs.
Now, News Hits has to admit to a certain bias here. Sure, we understand that reporters aren't above the law and need to listen to the cops just like everyone else. Assistant Wayne County prosecutor Thomas Trzcinski made that point repeatedly.
And we know that tramping around a crime scene has the potential to mess things up and hamper an investigation.
But here's the thing that has us perplexed: Why was it just Diane Bukowski who was slapped with felony charges as a result of what happened on Detroit's west side last Nov. 4.
For example, one of the Michigan State Police officers at the scene that day broke up a fight involving two men, one of whom head-butted the cop in the stomach. Now, this officer was able to remember clearly seeing Bukowski inside the yellow tape, but he couldn't recall getting head-butted — until Bukowski attorney Emmett Greenwood pointed out that the cop had put that info into his report.
That head-butt could certainly be construed as both resisting arrest and assaulting an officer — both felonies. Instead, the head-butter was charged only with disorderly conduct — a misdemeanor — and then given a ride home by the cops.
What Bukowski got was a ride to jail and, once the case got in the hands of the Prosecutor's Office, five felony charges that carried a potential 20-year prison sentence. Those five charges were later reduced to two.
Another instance of the law coming down harder on Bukowski than others involved one of the victims' relatives, who absolutely did cross the police line. She admitted so in court, testifying that an officer grabbed her roughly, pulled her arm up behind her back, and forced to the other side of the tape. No charges were brought against that woman, who appeared in court to testify on behalf of Bukowski, saying the reporter never crossed the police tape.
And then we have the actions of Michigan state trooper Eric Byerly, who took it upon himself to act as a censor, seizing Bukowski's camera and deleting photos she'd taken of the crime scene. He testified that he didn't want the pictures — which showed tarps covering body parts and, possibly other evidence such as skid marks — showing up on the Internet. But even the judge in the case, Michael Hathaway, warned that the officer could be subject to felony charges of tampering with evidence, and suggested that the cop be advised of his right to avoid self-incrimination before testifying as to what he did.
But Trzcinski's claim of no one being above the law apparently doesn't apply to cops who appear to have broken it. There's no indication Prosecutor Kym Worthy or anyone in her office plans to bring charges against the cop.
All of which begs the question: Why did the law come down so hard on Diane Bukowski. She has a theory, but because of a ruling by Hathaway, the jury was never allowed to hear it.
In the early part of this decade, Bukowski did groundbreaking work covering the problem of wrongful police shootings in Detroit and the failure of the Prosecutor's Office to bring charges against officers who shot people.
Her level of commitment to serving her community was rewarded with a cadre of loyal supporters, at least 20 of whom have showed up every time she's been in court.
"She's not somebody who is a truth-teller," Trzcinski told the jury when urging them to give no credence to her claims of innocence. But to her supporters, she is fearless in her truth-telling, and that willingness to shed light on the questionable actions of authorities, no matter how much power they hold, is exactly why she was in court.
"I never even heard of the Michigan Citizen before being assigned this case," Trzcinski told the jury. "The New York Times it ain't."
That's true. If it were the New York Times, then Bukowski would have had the best lawyers money could buy instead of having to establish a legal defense fund to help cover her costs, and other media would have filled the courtroom instead of ignoring the trial.
Bukowski — a retired city of Detroit worker who also holds down a part-time job with the United Community Housing Coalition, where she helps the homeless obtain housing — says the experience has only strengthened her resolve as a reporter.
The felonies could have been avoided. The Prosecutor's Office twice offered to reduce the charges to misdemeanors if she pleaded guilty, but she refused.
"I didn't do anything wrong," she says by way of explanation.
"I am neither dispirited nor depressed about this unjust outcome, but all the more resolved to continue the struggle against the beast that is the so-called 'criminal justice' (read injustice) system in this city, county, state and country," she said in an e-mail sent to supporters. "Tens of thousands of poor defendants, who do not have my advantages, are daily railroaded into the prison system using court-appointed attorneys who frequently plead them out whether or not they committed the crime. Many are charged with crimes arising from their poverty."
Her sentencing is set for June 1.
Whatever the outcome, she's prepared to take it in stride.
"It's just the price I'm paying for doing what I do," she says.Curt Guyette is Metro Times news editor. Contact him at 313-202-804 or firstname.lastname@example.org