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Justice Gets a Good Mugging : Outrageous settlement for criminal who was shot by police officer

On the night of June 28, 1984, Jerome Sandusky, then 71, was struck, pinned to the ground and choked by two muggers who robbed him of $30 in a Manhattan subway station. As his attackers fled, a plainclothes transit police officer who had come running to Sandusky’s aid fired one shot. Bernard McCummings, fresh out of jail after a conviction for robbery, was struck in the back and left paralyzed from the chest down.

McCummings served more than two years in prison for the attack on Sandusky. He also filed an excessive-force suit against the New York Transit Authority and won damages of $4.3 million from a state court jury. The U.S. Supreme Court has now let that judgment stand.

It did so based on its 1985 ruling that police may not shoot unarmed, fleeing criminal suspects who present no apparent danger to the police or public. To shoot, said the justices, is to deprive a suspect of his constitutional rights.

Lawyers for the Transit Authority had urged the court to modify its earlier rule to allow using deadly force against a fleeing suspect who had committed an act of “serious physical violence.” That seems to us to be a sensible and needed clarification. Sandusky testified he was nearly “choked to death” by his attackers. That they were not armed made them no less dangerous to their victim--or to the next person who might become their victim.

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Of course no one wants to see law-enforcement agents free to blaze away at any fleeing suspect, however petty his crime may have been. But it is only common sense that criminals must accept certain risks to their lives and well-being when they set out to commit crimes.

A public that increasingly fears being victimized by violent crime does not want to see law enforcement agents left effectively powerless when they might have a chance to stop fleeing muggers or rapists.

Like burglars and car thieves, muggers and rapists--armed or not--tend to repeat their crimes. We hope the high court gets another chance soon to reconsider where the perceived constitutional rights of violent criminals stop, and the rights of their victims to be better protected by the law begin.


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