Both a cop and his prime homicide suspect have walked away free men. But it’s the cop who’s gathered most of the attention. Donald Love was picked up by Milwaukee police on August 14, 2013, after his infant son died in a local hospital of traumatic brain injuries. Love wasn’t just a “person of interest.” He was alone in the house with the infant at the time the injury occurred.
Love was interrogated by detective Rodolfo Gomez Jr. This questioning was recorded. The highlight reel, as it were, doesn’t show much interrogation. It shows Gomez attacking the restrained suspect on two separate occasions. Love was punched, kicked and jabbed in the eye with Gomez’s thumb. The latter — and more excruciating “interaction” (caution: the video hosted here contains some very unnerving screaming) — occurred during Gomez’s “follow-up questioning,” and appears to have been provoked by Love’s justifiably angry yelling.
How do you defend someone against charges related to a videotaped beating? Well, you do everything you can to cast the person handing out the beating as the real victim. His defense lawyers helped, but they had to fight an uphill battle against both damning video footage and statements made by Gomez himself, most of which gave the indication that he had no idea how to handle a potentially dangerous individual.
First, Gomez admitted he said something he knew would provoke an angry response. Then he claimed his short-term memory went all haywire in the heat of the moment.
Even after Gomez punched Love hard in the face, he still refused orders to sit and stop resisting, Gomez told the jury, causing the veteran detective to fear for his life.
Love finally settled down when the lieutenant responded to yelling in the interrogation room and helped Gomez gain control of Love. Both detectives then left the room, but Gomez continued to monitor Love from just outside the doorway.
It was at that point, Gomez said, that he realized he had handcuffed Love earlier.
“I had forgotten I had handcuffed Mr. Love,” Gomez said.
“Forgotten.” And twice at that. Gomez got a very good look at the “forgotten” handcuffs during the first beatdown, having twisted Love’s free arm up against his body and bent him over the interrogation room desk. But he entered the room moments later and acted as though Love’s left hand was unrestrained.
On top of that, he stated that he “provoked” an angry reaction — something he probably wouldn’t have done if he thought Love was completely unrestrained. If he actually thought Love wasn’t cuffed to the wall — and went ahead with his plan to aggravate his detainee — then Gomez was either acting recklessly or just looking for an excuse to start swinging.
Gomez’s memory continued to leak.
Gomez said the door behind was closed and locked, which made retreat difficult. But even if the door had been open, he said, he would not have tried to leave the room.
“I’d be giving my back to a killer,” Gomez said.
A lieutenant testified that when responding to the room after hearing yelling, the door was open.
And with all of that (and the detective’s past misconduct), the jury still found Gomez credible enough to acquit. The key to this unlikely turn of events? The skillful manipulation of time. A handful of guys in black suits walking down through a parking lot is almost completely uninteresting. But adjust the speed a bit and suddenly you have something much more dramatic. The same sort of thing happens in real life. A video which apparently shows a detective beating an unarmed, restrained man becomes a horrific incident in which a detective bravely survives a potential beating at the hands of an unarmed, restrained man.
A juror from the trial said a defense expert’s frame-by-frame examination of the incident’s key moments put things in a different light and convinced jurors that Gomez reasonably believed he was in danger and used only the force necessary to establish control over Deron Love, a suspect in the death of his infant son.
“We were able to convince the last juror, reluctantly, that still frame by still frame Gomez’s last three closed fist windups became open palm motions to control Love’s arms, and his final leg strike misses the mark.”
Gardner said the expert’s explanation, while moving single frames from the video back and forth in a slide show, helped convince jurors that Love was resisting Gomez’s commands to sit down or relax his body, even if Love didn’t actively fight back.
It also helps to have a jury pool sufficiently awed by the dangers of police work that they can swallow that last sentence without immediately vomiting in disbelief. And also willing to grant positive points for blows that didn’t quite connect. Apparently, you can “resist” without “actively fighting back,” and you’ll know that you’re “resisting” when the police officer begins raining blows on your handcuffed body.
“Turning your back on a killer” or no, Gomez had other options. Love was restrained. He could have left the room. He could have called for help. He could have simply walked as far back as needed to still “communicate” with Love without being “resisted” at the same time. The excuse that he “forgot” he had handcuffed Love might work once, but it doesn’t explain his actions the second time, after he could plainly see the handcuff attached to Love’s wrist.
Gomez, for the time being, is no longer a Milwaukee PD employee. This “problem” may be swiftly remedied now that he’s been acquitted. Love has also been cleared of all charges, but he’s headed right back into the courtroom with a newly-filed civil rights suit against Gomez. Just as this won’t be Love’s first tango with Gomez, it also won’t be Gomez’s first appearance under the heading “DEFENDANT” in a civil rights suit. A 2008 lawsuit stemming from a no-knock warrant obtained by Det. Gomez ended up this way.
Gomez, now a homicide detective, sought qualified immunity. The district judge denied the request, a decision that was upheld Wednesday by the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Gomez was recently the subject of internal investigation after his arrest on a domestic violence claim. No criminal charges were issued.
In its 20-page opinion, the court found that “If believed, (the sister’s sworn) deposition testimony would establish that Officer Gomez knowingly or with reckless disregard for the truth made false or misleading statements in the affidavit…”
In denying Gomez qualified immunity, the court noted that Gomez’s affidavit implied the [suspects] kept weapons as a part of a criminal enterprise, when the sister’s tip suggested nothing of the sort, that he knew the sister was on bad terms with Sharon Betker and hadn’t been in the Franklin home for five years, and didn’t try to nail down some information that came from her as hearsay.
“Statements that are both unreliable and uncorroborated do not support probable cause,” the court found.
Former Det. Gomez, ladies and gentlemen: a cop who hits restrained men and unrestrained women, but somehow manages to land on his feet. And wrapped up in his tale of habitual abuse is the “power” of video — an objective, unblinking eye that can be made to “take sides” when properly manipulated. A recording of a disputed event is better than hearsay and conjecture but, in reality, is often nothing more than a useful idiot. It only records. It offers images, not insight. With enough skill, any recording can be used to present both sides of the same argument. “Seeing is believing,” as they say, but the use of controversial tactics, like those used in Gomez’s defense, can change what is seen and alter beliefs.