1:43 seconds: the hecksel-rice shooting.
Lesson: Critics scorn you for "putting yourself in danger." Be able to explain action/reaction principles to people who've never faced the danger you did.
It is shortly after one AM on the night of January 30, 2001. Jimmy Hecksel, not quite thirty, is a police officer in Gainesville, Florida. He has long since proven himself a good cop, with a jacket--personnel file--that contains numerous commendations including the Officer of the Month award. His extensive training resume includes certification as a police firearm instructor.
Suddenly, a ten-year-old Chevrolet Cavalier blows a stop sign and blasts past him, a slender, lone male Caucasian at the wheel. Hecksel puts his patrol car in gear and goes after the violator.
But the driver won't stop and the chase is on. He is weaving all over the road as well as dramatically exceeding the speed limit. The Cavalier barely misses a pedestrian in the road, a man named Mora, by three feet. Hecksel recognizes the danger the chase presents, but also realizes that the danger to the public is greater if this man stays on the road.
At last, pulling off the paved road, the fugitive driver loses it and finds his compact car stuck in the loose sand of a country lane, its wheels spinning as he desperately attempts to continue his flight. Hecksel pulls in behind him, in a felony stop position. He knows that backup is en route ... but he also knows that it will be minutes before assisting officers arrive. If this man gains traction and goes mobile again, he can kill innocent passers by, or wrap himself fatally around a tree.
Hecksel has already drawn his pistol, which is standard police procedure at the end of any chase. The institutional history of law enforcement has shown that when a driver risks his life and the lives of others attempting to elude police at high speed, he may be desperate enough to attempt to murder arresting officers when they close in on him. Hecksel's weapon is department issue, a Heckler and Koch USP40 Compact, and it is a tool with which he is well practiced and intimately familiar.
Clearly identified and shouting for the man to stop, the officer approaches the vehicle. The driver simply races the engine, trying harder to get away. Recognizing an urgent need to stop the man from getting back on the road and getting himself or others killed, Hecksel decides to try to break the driver's window and take physical control of the suspect. The gun is already in his hand, and keeping its muzzle away from the driver, he strikes the weapon against the side window. It does not yield.
Suddenly, the wild driver's tires take hold.
The Cavalier lurches backward, slamming into the patrol car. Reflexively, Hecksel moves toward the vehicles.
And now, the driver reverses directions. The vehicle lunges at the young policeman like a thing alive, coming straight at him.
Tunnel vision kicks in immediately, and for Jimmy Hecksel, the world narrows into an area perhaps three feet square, centered on the shadowy human figure behind the windshield who is trying to run him down. He does not perceive any way to get out of its path on the narrow road, and fears he will lose his footing on sand so loose that it traps automobiles. At this brief and terrible moment, he can see only one avenue to survival.
Jimmy Hecksel brings his pistol up in a two-hand stance and fires.
He is not specifically aiming, rather looking over the gun at the threat in the narrow cone of his tunneled vision. He is not counting his shots, just firing as fast as he can to stop the deadly thing that is coming toward him.
Then, just as quickly, he perceives that the car is going past him. Instantly reverting to his range training, he depresses the HK's muzzle to low ready, his trigger finger popping out of the guard and straight forward on the frame. He decocks, holsters, and runs to his car to give chase again.
This leg of the pursuit will be shorter. The Cavalier travels further down the lane, through a fence gate, finally coming to a stop. As Hecksel pulls in behind it, he dismounts the patrol car and again draws. Now, the other man is out of his car, too. He is staggering, and Jimmy can see a small spot of blood on his shirt. The man's legs buckle, and he goes down. Hecksel activates his radio mic with his left hand to call for the paramedics, and holsters the service pistol with his right hand. Then he kneels beside the fallen man, opens his shirt to assess his injuries, and begins first aid, ignoring the blood that covers his hands ...
Corey Rice, a 22-year-old father and estranged husband, died of his wounds that night. The Gainesville Police Department knew exactly what had happened, because the shooting was captured on the dashboard camcorder of Hecksel's patrol vehicle. Gainesville Police Chief Norman Botsford initially supported the officer, and the investigation followed its normal course: Criminal flight from a law enforcement officer, aggravated assault on a police officer, line of duty shooting.
But then things changed.
Part of it was the media treatment. The public saw "unarmed motorist shot to death by police officer." Rice had been a student at the University of Florida, and Gainesville is a college town. Sympathy went toward the deceased.
And then came the lawsuit.
Hecksel's attorney, Henry Ferro, explained it to me as follows when he called me the following summer. Ferro told me that the family of the deceased had hired as their lawyer the former prosecutor for the county, or "State's Attorney" as he is called in Florida. The new State's Attorney was the old one's former right-hand man, hand-picked by the old boss to replace him, and doubtless grateful for his endorsement in the election. The plaintiff's lawyer would gain great leverage if criminal charges should be filed against the officer by this lawyer's protege, now the head of the prosecutor's office.
Suddenly, the case was in front of a grand jury that would see only what the prosecutor allowed them to see. And, for the first time in recent memory, they chose to indict a police officer based on a line of duty shooting. Nothing like that had happened in Alachua County, Fla., for some twenty years. The prosecution's theory was that the first several shots were justified, but the last two or three weren't, because by then the striking portion of the vehicle had passed Hecksel and he was no longer in danger. The charge was Manslaughter, and the young cop was looking at serious hard time if convicted.
The chief changed his tune. Soon there was an internal affairs investigation that found Hecksel at fault, and Chief Botsford fired him. The city caved and settled the lawsuit out of court for a large sum of money. The prosecution rolled on.
It was a more than two and a half year ordeal until the case came to trial in October 2003, lasting two weeks and stretching into early November. The jury learned that at the time of his death, Corey Rice had a blood alcohol content that equaled "legally drunk twice over," and also had marijuana in his system. They saw the video clip from the patrol car camcorder again and again.
The state's own outside expert admitted under oath that the cop had been in deadly danger when he fired, but insisted that this was not the case in the instant in which the last shots had been fired. The tape showed seven shots fired in less than a second and a half, which is about what you get when you turn on an electronic timer and ask a man to fire that kind of pistol as fast as he can. The timing of an image on film is subjective, and some viewers got 1.46 seconds and some got 1.44, but most agreed that the seven shots ran 1.43 seconds, first to last. Three of those shots had struck Corey Rice. One had gone side to side, left to right, and one had entered behind the lateral midline tracking forward. However, the prosecution's expert had to admit that there was no way to tell if these shots had been fired when the cop was out of danger, or if Rice had reflexively twisted his body away from the first shots and taken those hits with the car still coming toward Hecksel. Moreover, under Ferro's expert cross-examination, he had to admit that Hecksel might also have been in danger of sideswiping injury even when the last rounds were discharged.
Dr. Bill Lewinsky, the brilliant professor who is one of the leading researchers in human reaction time as it relates to such instances, explained for the defense that by the time Hecksel realized that he was no longer in danger and stopped shooting, the seven shots had already been unleashed. Action beats reaction. Hecksel's firing was a reaction to Rice's attempt to crush him to death with an automobile. In the fraction of a second it took the officer's brain to process the fact that the car was now going past him, the last three jacketed hollow points were already on their way. In short, the cop had stopped shooting as soon as was humanly possible.
Jimmy Hecksel had only had a fraction of a second in which to react or die. The jury took 14,400 seconds to analyze his actions and judge him. Four hours after they entered the deliberation room, they returned a verdict of Not Guilty.
Not until they were released from jury duty and went home to read the newspapers did those good people learn that, prior to trial, State Attorney Bill Cervone had approved a plea bargain offer to Hecksel that would have left him serving no time at all. Hecksel refused the offer. Defense attorney Ferro, a former judge, had faith that they would win in front of any jury that knew the full facts. Hecksel himself believed in the justice system enough that he felt he would be acquitted. They had both been proven correct.
A suspect being shot while trying to run down a policeman is one of the most common formats of line of duty shootings. When I was a young cop, we were taught not to shoot in such situations, since a bullet would not stop a car and a wounded driver could travel on to cause a swath of innocent casualties. Over time, this conventional wisdom was proven wrong. The institutional history of modern policing shows us that the murderous driver who is shot generally comes to a stop within a short distance, and that such a driver often ceases hostilities as soon as he is shot at. The tape of Hecksel shooting Rice is interpretable as the vehicle not veering away from the officer until Hecksel starts shooting. A policeman's bullet may not stop a moving car, but it can most certainly stop the driver of the vehicle.
These situations are always reported the same way in the media: "Unarmed Motorist Slain by Police." A full size automobile at fifty miles an hour generates half a million foot pounds of energy. Compute it downward for a small car like a '91 Cavalier and for the lower speed involved--the prosecutor's own expert admitted that the vehicle was accelerating rapidly as it came toward the patrolman--and you still have more body-destroying force than could be mustered if every officer working the midnight shift had fired every round of ammunition in every magazine on their duty belts. Any police officer who has responded to an auto/pedestrian accident knows the sort of horrendous, mangling trauma that such an impact causes. The term "he was strained through the grille" is not just a figure of speech. Avulsions--field amputations--are commonplace when cars slam into humans. Flattened torsos. Skulls literally crushed like eggshells. The cops know what's about to happen to them if they don't use the greatest force available to them to stop it. That's why they shoot at drivers who try to run them down, and that's why the courts generally rule them justifiable for so doing.
People ask, "Why didn't the cop just jump out of the way?" In this case, the answer is, he couldn't. Obstacles to his right, and unsure footing in the narrow lane, left Hecksel with no real escape options. It was a fight or flight moment, and flight was not practical.
Jimmy Hecksel took the stand in his own behalf, and spoke from the heart. Bill Lewinsky's expert testimony showed the jury why it was not humanly possible to assess changing circumstances tenth of a second by tenth of a second. Henry Ferro tied it all together in a masterful summation of a brilliantly orchestrated defense strategy. This is why the jury in the Hecksel case did the right thing and acquitted the cop. The great Oliver Wendell Holmes had phrased it perfectly in the first half of the 20th Century: "Detached reflection is not demanded in the presence of an upraised knife." Nor should it be demanded in the face of a drawn gun, or an onrushing motor vehicle.
Could certain things have been done better by the officer? Sure, and that's where the term "Monday morning quarterback" came from. I cringed when Ferro told me that Hecksel had tried to break the window with his pistol, but I wasn't the one there trying desperately to keep this guy from getting back on the road and killing himself or someone else. It comes under the doctrine of competing harms, the common law's definition of the simple ethical rule that when given a choice between two evils, one is expected to choose the lesser of two evils. That, basically, is what Hecksel did.
An underlying theme of the prosecution's case was that the officer had precipitated the incident by approaching the temporarily stuck Cavalier. I wanted to barf. If a defense lawyer cross-examining a rape victim had suggested that she brought it on herself by wearing attractive clothing, the same prosecutor would have leaped to his feet roaring objections. Yet here, the prosecution was dealing that same cheating card from the bottom of the deck, essentially saying, "He asked for it."
It is unethical to use that argument against a police officer, an individual who has sworn an oath administered by a government to put himself between danger and the public. Duty requires the cop to sometimes put himself in harm's way.
In something like the Hecksel/Rice situation, there is also the element of the rescuer saving the perpetrator from himself. It is common knowledge that the single person a drunk driver is most likely to kill or maim is himself. This thought was consciously in Jimmy Hecksel's mind as he knowingly moved forward at risk to himself to try to bring a safe end to Corey Rice's wild ride.
A New York lawyer who seemed to have appointed himself the devil's advocate in favor of punishing Hecksel, used that argument when he and I got into it on Court TV during one of their "talking heads" things that focused on this trial. He implied that the officer approaching Rice's car had set the stage for the fatal confrontation, and was thus negligent and deserving of a conviction for Manslaughter. I told him, "'It would be as if someone said that all the brave police officers and firefighters who died in the Twin Towers were negligent and set the stage for their own destruction. We used to call it courage, Bob."
I'll stand by those words today. Logical people can understand the concept. The logical people on Jimmy Hecksel's jury did.
A shooting very similar to Hecksel's occurred later in Gainesville. This time, the State's Attorney chose not to go for an indictment. The word was that in light of the Hecksel verdict, no one in the office thought they could get a conviction. Well, that would be one explanation.
In December of 2002, I had been deposed under oath by Assistant State's Attorney James Browning in this matter, with defense lawyer Henry Ferro present. I was asked my opinion "as to the rationality or the appropriateness of Mr. Rice's actions in response to Officer Hecksel's commands and actions." I replied, "The actions of Mr. Rice are indicative of a reckless, wanton disregard for his own life, for the lives of others, including the pedestrian citizen, Mr. Mora, and of the life of Officer Jimmy Hecksel." Really, that's what it came down to. It's what Jimmy Hecksel saw in the unforgiving split second in which he realized he had no choice but to fire his department issue service weapon. It was what I saw after seeing all the discovery evidence in the case. And it is what the jury obviously saw after two grueling weeks of trial testimony and evidence preparation.
Today, Jimmy Hecksel and his young family are still trying to put their lives back together. Their second child was born during their legal ordeal, born with a heart defect. Mrs. Hecksel blames the stress of the false accusation against her husband.
On November 2, 2004, voters went to the polls in Gainesville. Though the state of Florida overwhelmingly went "red" and helped to bring George Bush back to office, Gainesville was a small pocket of blue. That community went for John Kerry, and also returned the State's Attorney to office.
I suppose I should not have been surprised. That bloc of voters cast their ballots in time of war for a Presidential candidate who had heinously accused his own brothers in arms. It was consistent for them to vote for a prosecutor who threw a good cop to the wolves by trying to send him to prison when that prosecutor's own plea bargain offer was an admission that he knew the officer deserved no such sentence. At least, in most of the rest of the country, sanity and ethics prevailed.