It was like a scene out of a movie: A suspect in a gray hoodie is led out of a police station in handcuffs, flanked by officers in the dark of night.
Nearby, television cameras start rolling, lights flash in his eyes. He hangs his head as reporters rush to ask questions.
That was the scene Monday evening as Unified police officials led Jeffrey Black to the Salt Lake County jail after he was arrested in connection to the death of South Salt Lake Police Officer David Romrell.
Romrell was killed Saturday evening after he was run over by a black Chevrolet Impala driven by Black’s acquaintance, Felix Calata. Black was in the passenger seat — but now he’s facing the possibility of serious charges as if he had been behind the wheel. Calata was killed by police gunfire.
Video footage of Black being walked from the police station was seen on television sets throughout Utah Monday evening, causing concern with some about whether the police’s tactics may have violated the man’s constitutional rights or coerced him into sharing details about his alleged crimes to the media.
“I thought it was stunning,” said Brett Tolman, a former U.S. Attorney for Utah who is now in private practice. “Usually when you’re law enforcement, you’re transporting or you’re taking a prisoner somewhere. You’re not just stopping outside for a press conference. It felt awkward and odd.”
The footage shows police authorities as they stop Black from walking, and allow television cameras and reporters to come closer to the suspect — and as some reporters start asking him questions.
At first, Black says “no comment” to a question posed by a reporter. But police leave him standing there, cameras rolling. He then begins answering questions for more than a minute, officers at his side, about that Saturday when Romrell died.
How did you know Mr. Calata, a reporter asks? “I had only known him for two or three days,” Black mumbles.
What were you doing there that night? “We were going to make some money,” he said, adding that a woman owed Calata money and they were planning to collect the debt.
“I’m done talking,” he says at one point as a reporter asks him about Romrell. “C’mon, man.”
During this encounter, Black said he was sorry for the officer, but said he thought the driver had hit a mailbox, not a police officer.
Walking someone through a public space with media present — often called a “perp walk” — is not common in Utah. But what made this situation more concerning to some Utah defense attorneys was how police parked Black in front of the cameras and kept him there.
“It seems like the stopping of the suspect is very purposeful,” said attorney Clayton Simms. “It’s at night, there’s the bright lights of the camera. It’s a very powerful video. They’re in control. He’s not in control of whether he stays [and talks to reporters] or not.”
South Salt Lake police officials alerted the media to Black’s arrest Monday evening and told reporters when he would be taken from the department and from which door. Police spokesman Gary Keller said Tuesday that this isn’t a typical practice, but said it was a “different situation” because there was some question and outcry over why Black had initially been released from police custody Saturday before he was arrested days later.
He said the department did not have concerns about the case being tainted by the walkout, but did say there was some worry about “very aggressive” questioning of Black from reporters.
Black has yet to be formally charged with a crime, though he was booked into jail Monday evening on suspicion of aggravated murder, burglary and other crimes. But if the case does get to a courtroom, defense attorneys say this interaction with the media could be challenged in court. It also could raise issues of whether Black would receive a fair trial because of the incriminating video, where Black admits to being at the crime scene with the primary aggressor.
Defense attorney Greg Skordas said a typical perp walk is very quick, with officers whisking away a suspect as a reporter lobs a question or two. But this was different.
“They sort of paused and just let him bury himself,” Skordas said of Black. “I don’t know if there is anything unethical about it. It was weird, but it wasn’t in my opinion inappropriate.”
Several attorneys said it’s possible that Black’s defense attorney could try to have his statements to the media suppressed, so a prosecutor can’t use the statements against him at a trial. It could be argued that allowing him to be questioned by media while in police custody is a violation of his Miranda rights to remain silent and have an attorney present when questioned.
“Police are understandably aggressive in terms of this investigation,” Simms said. “And they should be. But you can’t cross the line in your zealousness. All of a sudden, you’re creating appealable issues that may not exist there because of your enthusiasm to prosecute the case.”
Tolman said that the perp walk could also be problematic from a prosecutor’s perspective, that it might create sympathy for the person you are trying to prosecute.
“Let the [mugshot] picture be out there,” he said. “Let him get his lawyer, get him in court and let justice work. Everything else seems like you’re risking too much.”
Black is being held at the Salt Lake County jail without the opportunity to post bail, after a judge found he is likely to flee if released, and that he committed a new felony while free on bail on another felony charge.
It’s not clear when prosecutors will make the decision of whether to charge Black. Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill said Tuesday that he has not yet received the investigative reports necessary to make that decision.
Editor’s note: The Salt Lake Tribune and FOX 13 are news-gathering partners.