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Police State: How America’s Cops Get Away with Murder (Book Review)

Police State: How America’s Cops Get Away with Murder, by Gerry Spence
(St. Martin’s Press, 2015). 338 pages, hard cover. $19.40

Book review by Bill Trine

In recent years, the American public has witnessed shocking videos, taken by cell phones with video cameras, of citizens brutalized and killed by the police. Are these recently-publicized incidents of police brutality something new, or has this abuse of power pre-existed the widespread use of video-enabled phones? The answer to that question becomes clear in Gerry Spence’s new book, Police State: How America’s Cops Get Away with Murder. By using the stories of some of his most famous jury trials dating back to the 1970s, Spence demonstrates that the flaws in our criminal justice system are longstanding and in desperate need of correction.

However, the content of the book is much broader than its title suggests. Spence does not limit his criticisms in Police State to law enforcement, including the FBI, but extends them to prosecutors who sometimes join the police in abuses of power that trample on the constitutional rights of citizens. In short, he is critical of a criminal justice system that protects those police, prosecutors and sometimes judges who abuse their power without fear of redress. Spence states, “Too many of America’s police are potentially state-sanctioned killers who know if they are called upon to answer for their crimes they’ll likely be protected by prosecutors and judges.”

He then supports his criticisms with eight of his legendary cases. Spence is a magnificent story teller and relates each case in a spellbinding fashion, starting with the now-famous Randy Weaver case involving the government’s atrocities at Ruby Ridge, Idaho in 1992. His description of the FBI agents’ siege and all-out war against the Weaver family, involving the killing of a boy’s dog, then the boy, then shooting the mother in the face as she held a new-born baby, is heartbreaking. The army of agents also shot and seriously wounded the men in the household, including Randy Weaver, who was successfully defended by Spence in the longest trial in the state’s history. The story of this trial alone is worth the price of the book. Despite the unjustified murders committed by law enforcement, Spence notes, “Not a single cop spent a night in jail.”

He then tells the stories of seven additional cases that support his contention that too many cops get away with murder, and that the abuse of power so often seen in the criminal justice system can also result in the prosecution of innocent victims. Those innocent victims include Dennis Williams, one of the four young black men in Chicago who became known as the “Ford Heights Four,” who were charged with the rape and murder of a white woman and the murder of her boyfriend. Williams was convicted and sentenced to death by an all-white jury in 1978, then exonerated 18 years later when all four were pardoned by the governor of Illinois because they were innocent. Spence then successfully brought a civil lawsuit on behalf of Williams, and tells the story of the outrageous conduct and racial profiling by the police and prosecutors who played an obscene game called “Niggers by the Pound.”

In telling the story of some of his most celebrated cases, as only a living legend can do, Gerry Spence captures your attention at the outset and pulls you into the story, which is told so vividly that you become captivated as you picture and feel the emotions involved. His stories demonstrate the compassion and feelings he has for each client, and how that – combined with police and prosecutorial misconduct – inspires him to seek justice. In his illustrious career he has never lost a criminal case.

Spence also tells the story of Fouad Kaady, a young man who borrowed his parent’s car, filled a gas can and was returning to his own car that had run out of gas, when an explosion occurred trapping him in the car and causing it to collide with other vehicles. When he was able to escape the inferno he ran into the woods in a panic, on fire and now naked. When a dozen or more cops responded to calls that reported the accident, he was found sitting on the edge of a nearby road in critical condition covered with blood, catatonic and unresponsive. He appeared to be burned from the waist up. When ordered to lie down on his stomach to be handcuffed, he didn’t comply and was literally tasered to death. The cops involved were not disciplined or punished.

The stories of the rest of the cases described by Spence all involve some form of police or prosecutorial misconduct, or both. He argues that all of the cases evidence an abuse of power. They include the murder of John Singer, who was shot in the back in 1979 by police who were chasing him in snowmobiles because he ignored a court order to place his children in school. They include other cases that resulted in national publicity, such as those of Brandon Mayfield, the Seattle lawyer charged with the deaths of 191 people killed in a terrorist bombing in Spain, based on an erroneous FBI fingerprint match; the Geoffrey Fieger political trial; the Imelda Marcos trial and others.

In conclusion, Spence states that in authoring this book, “I realized I’d never represented a person charged with a crime in either a state or federal court in which the police, including the FBI, hadn’t themselves violated the law – and on more than one occasion, even committed the crime of murder.” But, he adds, “I don’t mean to suggest that every cop is a bully, a criminal, or a killer. I do mean too many bullies and criminals and killers are cops.”

Spence then asks, “What can we do?” And in the epilogue he sets forth twelve steps that must be taken to implement the corrections he deems necessary “to prevent the long-standing practice of wrongful killings and their cover-ups by our police and prosecutors.”

This book demonstrates the heart, compassion and kindness of a legal warrior who has devoted his life to seeking justice for those who desperately need it the most. It is perhaps his finest work. Police State: How America’s Cops Get Away with Murder is available on and from St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10010;


Bill Trine has been a trial lawyer for 55 years with offices in Boulder, Colorado. He is a past president of the Colorado Trial Lawyers Association, a founder and past president of the Washington, D.C.-based Trial Lawyers for Public Justice, and a member of the Board of Directors of the Human Rights Defense Center, which publishes Prison Legal News. He is on the teaching staff of the Trial Lawyers College in Wyoming and is the co-author of a book and more than 75 published articles, including “The Genesis of Increasing Incidents of Police Brutality: The War on Drugs.”

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