Nathan Evershed: Context was lacking as people jumped to conclusions on police shooting

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake District Attorney Sim Gill describes the details of the shooting of Bernardo Palacios-Carbajal during a news conference on Thursday, July 9, 2020.

The unfortunate events following the shooting of Bernardo Palacios-Carbajal by two Salt Lake City police officers demonstrate what our societal discourse desperately lacks: context.

Of course, the death of Mr. Palacios-Carbajal is tragic. His family and friends mourn his loss. Protesters are right to state that his life mattered because it did matter. These points are inarguable.

What is arguable, however, is how this case was utilized by politicians, pundits and protesters without any second thought for a second thought. The shooting took place on May 23 and Salt Lake City released the officers’ body-camera videos on June 5, pursuant to policy.

Nothing else was released that day. No statements from the officers. No reports from the medical examiner. No police report findings. No video surveillance from surrounding businesses showing Mr. Palacios-Carbajal actually pointed his gun at officers after he was shot. Evidence which was methodically presented by District Attorney Sim Gill Thursday and shared in a 34-page conclusion, which found that the officers were justified based on all the evidence.

Instead, only the body camera videos were provided to the public on June 5 and provided without context.

(Disclosure: I am a former Salt Lake County deputy district attorney. However, I am a vocal critic of Sim Gill and ran against him in 2018 for district attorney. He won and I am happily in private practice.)

If there is one thing that society has tried to codify in law over the past several hundred years is the attempt to allow for context. Due process is a principle of fairness and the ability to provide context. Our entire justice system is premised on the idea that the decision maker, whether it be judge or jury, be allowed to hear the full context of the case.

A jury trial contains the fair principles of open disclosure of evidence, cogent arguments from both sides, cross examination of witnesses by opposing counsel and the ability to present your side of the story. This is all done to ensure that a correct decision will be entered, after receiving the full context of the case. As the old saying goes: Context counts.

Of course, a jury trial is not the same as daily life, but the principle of needing context in order to make correct determinations is needed just the same. Unfortunately, with social media and hyper-partisan news outlets, context is becoming less admired or appreciated. A brash headline, slogan or a tweet is far more satisfying. While those animate individuals and get clicks, they do not give a full understanding. Neither does a video without a narrative.

After the video of Mr. Palacios-Carbajal’s shooting was released, many people jumped to conclusions. These were conclusions without context. Protesters marched, which is a basic American right. Unfortunately, some of these protests became more riotous. Traffic was blocked. Public property was defaced. A large portion of the street in front of the district attorney’s office was literally painted red. Placards with slogans were taped on the building. A mob descended on the DA’s office and demanded only one outcome — charging police officers with murder based on scant evidence. If history has taught us anything, it is that mobs dislike context.

Unfortunately, these protesters were aided by people that should have been calmly leading rather than igniting passions. On the same day the video was released, the Salt Lake City Council released a letter stating that they felt “outraged at the death of Bernardo Palacios-Carbajal.”

The council decried the shooting and vowed for change. One council member opined separately that, after only seeing the video and nothing else, the shooting was unlawful. Another council member told a radio show that Mr. Palacios-Carbajal was shot in the back 28 times, a statement that was inflammatory and false.

Both of these council members are attorneys who are very familiar with due process rights and the importance of a full investigation because they allow for context. Unfortunately, words of quick condemnation are more politically expedient than words of calm restraint.

One can understand why words of quick condemnation are utilized by pundits, politicians and protesters. Those words quickly animate and motivate, especially with social media. Nowadays, quickly signaling one’s virtue is highly regarded and rewarded; signaling reminders of innocence until proven guilty and due process rights unfortunately is not.

Nevertheless, in key areas of debate, decision-making, policy creation, historical analysis and legal decisions, we need context. As demonstrated once again with the unfortunate events surrounding the shooting of Mr. Palacios-Carbajal, context really does count. Now more than ever.

Nathan Evershed

Nathan Evershed is an attorney at Nelson Jones, PLLC, where he specializes in criminal defense. He represents many different clients, including some law enforcement officers, although not the ones referred to here. He was a prosecutor inside the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office from 2007-2018.