The holidays are over – the time of year when family is uppermost in the minds and hearts of just about everybody. During this past holiday season, my thoughts were with the Picagli family of New Haven, whose tragedy could have happened in any state, any town. The mother and children spent their first Christmas without their husband and father, because in October, Officer Dan Picagli was struck down by a vehicle. Four days later, on the 21st, he died.
We all know what happens to a cop-killer in America: unrelenting pursuit, until the day after forever, right? Around the same time, a Colorado man was sentenced to 80 years for trying to kill an officer. Not for succeeding, no – just for making the attempt. The solemn tradition of law enforcement is that nobody gets away with killing a cop.
Nobody, that is, except a federal appeals court judge, who also happens to be the cousin of former President Bush. We must take it on faith that John M. Walker Jr.’s connection to the highest office in the land has nothing to do with the fact that he walked away unscathed. Judge Walker was not required to have a breathalyzer, blood, urine, line-walking, or nose-touching test.
After the 65-year-old driver’s SUV struck Officer Picagli, the responding officers saw no “red flags” to indicate that Judge Walker might have been impaired. Excuse me? The fact that the man he mowed down was at that very moment being loaded into an ambulance, would seem to be a fairly significant red flag.
“Police have ruled out drugs and alcohol…,” the local newspaper said. Usually the term “rule out” means to eliminate a factor from consideration after performing a test that proves it should be excluded. In this case, however, the officer at the scene ruled out drugs and alcohol by eyeballing the judge and, more to the point, his Bushevik ID, and arbitrarily decided this driver was not substance-impaired.
Anyone else would have been asked to take a breathalyzer test, and hit with an automatic six-month license suspension if he refused. But Judge Walker wasn’t even asked. And this in a state where a driver can be prosecuted for operating “under the influence,” even without the evidence of any lab test!
“If you were driving and were involved in an accident which resulted in death or serious injury to a person, and the police have probable cause to believe you were under the influence, a BAC test is mandatory,” says the state’s official website. But the bleeding, unconscious body of Officer Picagli was not seen as probable cause. According to an official spokesperson, “police did not feel it was necessary to test Walker for drugs or alcohol.” And no charges were filed.
Dan Picagli was a good cop, who specialized in working with at-risk youth, dozens of whom showed up for his wake. They say he had a rare gift for seeing the potential in every child. In 1998, a White House forum on school safety focused on the school where Picagli had been the “resource officer” for three years. He appeared in training films and held workshops. In his spare time he ran the Police Athletic League, organized a toy drive at Christmas, and took youngsters to baseball games in New York City. The local kids remember his July 4th fireworks and bonfires.
A car wash donated half of a day’s profits to an education fund for the Picagli kids. See, their dad was moonlighting. He wasn’t killed on active duty, so in terms of compensation, his family probably is eligible for bupkis. Meanwhile, the “retired” judge pulls down $175,000 a year.
There’s a lovely remembrance page about “Danny Pags” on the Web, where the tributes from fellow officers have the ring of sincerity. “Maybe someday I can touch as many people as you have,” said one. “Any rookie out of the Academy should want to follow in your footsteps,” said another. By all accounts, Picagli was tough act to follow.
The memorial messages spoke of caring, commitment, understanding, patience, friendship, competence, integrity, dedication, and energy. Picagli was called mentor, brother, and inspiration; described as positive, upbeat, happy; with a smile and kind words; always thinking of others; never saying no to a task; a good and decent human being.
That’s who John M. Walker Jr., cousin of former President Bush, killed.
People have different opinions about the police. Some would say Judge Walker managed to kill the only good cop in the entire North American continent. Others would say Officer Picagli was a shining representative of thousands of cops who are equally good. That’s not the question here. When somebody dies, it’s not our job to set a value on that life. All are equal in the eyes of the law and the Lord.
And maybe Judge Walker is not an evil man. A courthouse acquaintance describes him as “warm and wonderful.” Maybe he’s a great guy, an exemplary judge, an incomparable husband and father. Maybe he wasn’t even impaired at the time of the accident – not drunk, not drugged, not speeding, not talking on a cell phone.
The fact remains that Dan Picagli is dead, and John Walker killed him. The conclusion? Perhaps it’s that someone can be a killer and a nice guy at the same time.
So: What should be done with the judge? My modest suggestion is, get him off the appeals bench and bust him back down to DUI court. Nobody should get away with hurting another person, but an awful lot of people who haven’t hurt anybody are pulled in by the law. We probably all know someone whose life has been derailed by a drunk driving checkpoint, or an accident that wasn’t really their fault.
It might be helpful to have a judge with some personal history ruling on DUI court cases. Maybe the system needs more judges with experience at the other end of the legal hierarchy. All we can hope for from this mess is that it’s made John M. Walker Jr. a more compassionate human being. If so, reassign him where that quality can do the most good.
first published as “Class Privilege is Still Alive and Thriving” in the Johnstown Breeze (Colorado) Dec. 14, 2006