Jailed Chicago cop wins appeal

Appeals court says Officer Mike Mette was wronged at trial
October 2, 2008 10:02:46 AM PDT
It is the best possible news for Chicago cop Mike Mette. An appellate court in Iowa Wednesday morning ruled in favor of Mette, who is serving a five-year prison sentence after he was attacked by a drunken college student in Dubuque. The court ruled that Mette was defending himself and that the court should have acquitted him.

"We conclude the district court's finding that Mette had an opportunity to retreat is not supported by substantial evidence," wrote the Iowa justices in an eagerly awaited decision handed down at 8:30 a.m.

By sending the case back to the trial court to enter a verdict of acquittal, the decision opens the door for Mette to be released from prison. His family members hailed the ruling as, "Finally some good news from Iowa" on a Web site dedicated to justice in Mr. Mette's case. "Keep the prayers coming that he is home soon," write family members in an e-mail proclaiming the court decision.

As the ABC7 I-Team first reported two years ago, Mette was charged after a 2005 incident in which he punched Dubuque student Jake Gothard. Both men had been drinking. Gothard was determined to have been the aggressor in the early morning street fracas, but was not charged. Mette, who attempted to walk away from Gothard several times before slugging him, was convicted and sentenced to five years in the state penitentiary.

Because he has no Internet access at the north central Iowa prison where he is an inmate, Mette had to make a phone call Wednesday morning to his father in Chicago to find out about his court appeal.

"At first, when I called, he didn't seem excited," Mette said. "I told him I hadn't heard anything. I asked, 'Yeah, what was it?' He said, 'You won your appeal.

"I've always said since day one, how was I to retreat since I was being attacked? How can somebody turn their back on somebody attacking them? There is greater risk if I did," Mette added.

"I was at the hearing, and the way it was presented, I thought it was the only way they could have ruled," said Bob Mette, the officer's father.

In reversing Michael Mette's conviction, the appellate court Wednesday discredited the trial judge's verdict. "We first note that the whole incident lasted only a couple of minutes and due to the intoxication of most, if not all of the individuals, the testimony differed in details. Lighting was poor and the facts are sketchy and disputed," wrote the Iowa state justices.

Officer Mette's attorney, Mark McCormick, had argued during the appeal that it was nothing more than self-defense when Michael Mette punched Gothard. "Is it logical to think in the heat of the moment that Mr. Mette should stop and talk to Mr. Gothard?" McCormick asked the court. "That is out of the realm of reality."

Prosecutors countered that Mike Mette should have continued to ignore the aggression by Gothard or called Dubuque police. State attorney Linda Hines argued, "The court found [Mette] had other options. He was pushed. He hit back. He hit so hard that Mr. Gothard was knocked unconscious and fell backward."

The court Wednesday agreed with the defense. "After being pushed and knocked backwards two or three times, there was nothing in the record to indicate Michael could have avoided Gothard's next blow, without his defensive punch. While it may be possible to speculate on Michael's ability to retreat, the record is utterly void of any testimony to support that assumption."

Wednesday morning's ruling, which was first seen on the state court Web site, is a home run for the Chicago policeman, his legal team and a legion of supportive family members. "Given the State's unmet burden of proof, we conclude the district court erred in rejecting Mette's defense of justification. As we conclude the State did not meet its burden of proof, we need not consider Mette's argument that the district court erred in finding Gothard suffered serious injury. We therefore reverse and remand for entry of judgment of acquittal," concluded the Court of Appeals.

Despite Wednesday's victory for Officer Mette, apparently he will not immediately be released from prison. Iowa law allows prosecutors 20 days to ask the state Supreme Court to review and overrule the decision.

After Mike Mette was convicted of felony assault, he was removed from the Chicago Police Department. Top city law enforcement officials have recently pressured Iowa authorities to reconsider the case. Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, Cook County State's Attorney Richard Devine, Chicago Police Superintendent Jody Weis and others wrote to Iowa Governor Chet Culver, imploring him to pardon the cop.

A busload of his supporters, including Chicago police officers, went to Des Moines for the appeals court hearing in September. Some wore t-shirts proclaiming an "Injustice in Iowa."

Mayor Daley applauded the decision along with police Supt. Weis, who said Mette's job is waiting for him.

"When he comes back, we'll get him reoriented, we'll get him refreshed and then we'll be really glad to have him back out on the streets," Weis said.

Michael Mette said he hopes what has happened to him won't affect his ability to be an effective policeman.

"I was very open minded when I was on the job," he said. "And I'd hope this wouldn't make me second guess my actions as a police officer because obviously that would put myself at risk, my partner, anybody else I was working with. It's not so much us against them, it's just, that's my job, and I'm there to do my job. And when I'm wearing the uniform, that's what I will be doing."

"I wrote the governor awhile back, and he didn't even bother to respond, which I was disappointed at," Devine said.

"If it wasn't for the support I was getting, I don't know if I could have stayed as strong and positive. It chokes me up," Michael Mette said.

"I'm grateful that the Iowa Court of Appeals today reversed Chicago Police Officer Michael Mette's conviction and ordered the sentencing judge to acquit him on assault charges related to an October 2005 incident in Dubuque that he did little or nothing to provoke," Daley wrote in a statement Wednesday afternoon. "Mr. Mette's response to the physical assault he experienced was not premeditated but merely a matter of self-defense."

Mike Mette's sister recently gave birth to a baby girl. The imprisoned cop's father says he hopes "good news will come to the family in threes; a granddaughter, Mike's release and the Cubs winning the World Series."

For Mike Mette, the lawman, what has been three years of questioning justice has now resulted in an answer. He says the checks and balances in the legal system really do work. They may just take some time.

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