Progressive prosecutors took office pledging to prosecute cops for alleged misdeeds. From Philadelphia to Los Angeles, they’ve kept that promise. But many of these cases crumble under scrutiny. The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia, which has criminal jurisdiction over adult felony cases in the nation’s capital, offers a stark case in point.

In December 2022, Washington, D.C., police officer Terence Sutton was convicted of second-degree murder for the October 2020 death of Karon Hylton-Brown. Sutton faces more than six decades behind bars when he is sentenced, though his sentencing has been delayed and is yet to be rescheduled.

But Sutton, a 13-year police veteran, did not strike, shoot, harm, or even touch Hylton. Hylton died after exiting a blind alley on a motorized scooter and being struck by a passing civilian vehicle. He had multiple drugs in his system. He ran through stop signs and red lights in the minutes before he drove into oncoming traffic. Sutton followed Hylton at a moderate speed, averaging 30 miles per hour.

What, then, explains the murder conviction? Sutton violated the D.C. police department’s then-strict “no chase” policy, according to which officers can pursue only those wanted for a violent felony or who pose an immediate risk of bodily harm to others. Hylton’s helmet and traffic violations apparently did not suffice.

Yet, the pursuing officers believed that Hylton—a member of the violent Kennedy Street drug gang with previous arrests for drugs, illegal gun possession, and assaults on police officers—was on his way to retaliate against a rival gang member over a debt. At the request of federal prosecutors, the court blocked the jury from hearing about Hylton’s membership in the Kennedy Street crew, which was under Justice Department investigation at the time and whose other members would later be indicted for murder, drug trafficking, and racketeering. The jury also never heard that Hylton was wearing an ankle monitor for a violent assault in Montgomery County, Maryland, and had thousands of dollars in cash strapped to his body.

A week after the incident, when the city released the police body-worn camera footage, D.C. mayor Muriel Bowser weighed in. “It looks like our police were following the moped that Karon was riding. . . . And if your question is, ‘Does that violate our policies about chasing?’ You know, we have very clear policies about no chasing. It should be obvious by now. Why? Because chases can be dangerous.” Bowser’s position was clear: Sutton broke the law.

Timing surely played a role in the flawed prosecution. The incident occurred only five months after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis; it sparked civilian unrest and protests, putting pressure on authorities to rush the case. In August 2021, city councilwoman Janeese Lewis George held a press conference demanding that the Justice Department immediately charge Sutton and his fellow officers. George, who had pledged to defund the D.C. police back in 2019, asked, “Why is this investigation taking so long when evidence is already there?”

The pressure campaign worked. The U.S. Attorney’s office filed charges against Sutton six weeks later. But the charges were for “depraved heart” murder, which requires that the defendant acted with “malice aforethought.”

Sutton’s December 2022 murder conviction, where the judge rebuffed the jury’s clarification of the statute’s “extreme risk” and “conscious disregard” language, is unprecedented. The prosecution reflects a politically charged moment that clouded officials and prosecutors’ decision-making and likely tainted the jury’s impartiality.

In a tragic irony, the police department’s no-chase policy, which helped cause Sutton’s conviction, may be on the outs. Such policies have resulted in preventable tragedies in cities across the country. With carjacking spiking in the nation’s capital, officers frequently tell victims that they cannot apprehend fleeing suspects. Accordingly, Mayor Bowser announced in October 2023, three years after she pronounced Sutton in violation of department policy, that she would push to allow police to pursue suspects in more circumstances. Cold comfort for Sutton that, had such proposed changes been in place in 2020, he might be a free man.

Karon Hylton-Brown’s death needn’t have happened. But Sutton’s actions were neither reckless nor malicious. Political pressure in the justice system often yields injustice.

Photo: The Bold Bureau/iStock


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