Judge, jury, executioner
By BILL MAXWELL
Published October 8, 2006
For me, two photographs published in the St. Petersburg Times on Sept. 30, on page 16A, are bookends for the controversy surrounding the deaths of Polk County sheriff's Deputy Matt Williams, his police dog Diogi and their killer, Angilo Freeland.
One photo captures Williams' wholesomeness, professionalism and his dedication to his dog. The other photo shows an Osceola County SWAT vehicle carrying military-clad officers. It undercuts the positive image of Williams by showing the members of the all-white SWAT team atop the vehicle, smiling and laughing.
Their fellow officer is dead, and his dog is dead. The killer is dead. Why, then, are these officers smiling and laughing?
The ugly answer is that they are celebrating.
The background: On Sept. 28, Polk County sheriff's Deputy Douglas Speirs pulled over Freeland for speeding. After Freeland ran into the woods, Speirs called for backup, and Williams and Diogi arrived. The three went into the woods after Freeland.
Minutes later, Freeland shot and killed Williams and the dog and wounded Speirs in the leg. He fled farther into the woods and hid. Twelve hours later, a SWAT unit, part of a 500-plus team from several other agencies, found Freeland under brush and a fallen tree in a back yard. Using MP5 submachine guns, nine officers fired 110 rounds, 68 riddling Freeland's body. Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd said Freeland had a gun in one hand.
The SWAT team members in the photo mentioned above are celebrating the execution of Freeland, who had executed Williams. The deputy was shot eight times, twice in the head at point-blank range.
Freeland's death was an execution, in part, because the posselike rhetoric of Judd created an atmosphere straight out of the Old West. Instead of in the town's square, Judd delivered his toughest words to cameras.
While Freeland was still on the lam, Judd, speaking like the iconic Western marshal, told reporters: "We're prepared for a gunfight, if he wants a gunfight."
SWAT team members, shoulder-to-shoulder, swarmed into the dense woods hell-bent on a "gunfight." Emotions - anger and desires for revenge - ran high. A thug wearing dreadlocks had murdered their comrade.
After Freeland was killed, Judd stood in front of a bank of cameras and microphones and made several ill-advised and cryptic comments. Among them:
"I suspect the only reason 110 rounds was all that was fired was that's all the ammunition they had. We were not going to take any chance of him shooting back."
"Ladies and gentleman, God will be the judge and jury this time.
"The killer chose this end.
"He raised his hand, and it had a firearm in it. That was the last thing he ever did."
A sense of blood lust - heightened by the sheriff's tough talk - surrounded the manhunt from beginning to end. So when the officers got their man, they celebrated.
I wanted Freeland caught as much as anyone else, but I wanted him to be taken alive if possible, even wounded, and brought to trial. I did not want to see him executed in the woods by law enforcement officers. Because Freeland's crime was so heinous, I wanted the officers to do their job right, to carry out their duties in a clean way that honored the life and memory of Deputy Williams.
If Judd had only heeded his own words to Gretchen Parker of the Tampa Tribune about law enforcement as a profession: "The community expects us to be at our best in the worst circumstances. That's why people call law enforcement, because the event is out of their control and they need someone to put it back in order."
This is an admirable perspective. But law enforcement was not at its "best in the worst of circumstances" when Freeland was killed. To the contrary, law enforcement was at its worst in the worst circumstances. And, no, Freeland's death did not put the "event" back in order, as Judd suggests. Instead, the SWAT team's killing of Angilo Freeland erased much of the dignity and ideals of law enforcement.
No one has any reasons to boast or to celebrate. As Judd said of Matt Williams' death: "It breaks your heart."