Denver cops: Media deal means we can't wait to report major busts even if there are loose ends
Update: Last week, we told you about the homicide arrest of Aaron Little -- and then, a day or so later, Little's release when an autopsy suggested the victim may have died from natural causes. (See our previous coverage below.) In our post, we wondered if the Denver Police Department had jumped the gun in ballyhooing the bust. A DPD spokesman denies that even as he concedes there were some loose ends. However, he says waiting to reveal the arrest wasn't an option, because of a deal with the area press.
More photos below.
"We have a long time agreement with the local media to release information about all major incidents, including homicides," says Lieutenant Matt Murray, the DPD's chief of staff -- and the longer the department waits, the unhappier journalists are likely to grow.
"We live in an era of transparency, where people are devouring more information than ever before," he notes. "And when we don't release information right away, we get beat up about it."
The result in this case was Little being featured in all manner of reports prior to the completion of an autopsy whose results were inconclusive -- meaning there appears to be no way to prove he committed a crime. But Murray defends the arrest based on the information contained in a probable cause statement on view below.
At 10:40 a.m., according to the document, officers were dispatched to 1555 Humboldt Street -- the Mental Health Center of Denver -- to investigate a report of an unconscious male who hadn't moved after being assaulted. The man, later identified as Ronald Stancil, age 61, was pronounced dead moments later.
Shortly thereafter, DPD reps interviewed Neva Marshall, who said that sometime after midnight on the 26th, she and Stancil, both homeless, had gone to sleep underneath the awning at the building, whose street appears to have been misidentified on second reference in the report. The location is seen in a Google image here:
Marshall told officers that during the night, Little, 25, had approached them and tried to take their blankets, and when Stancil resisted, the younger man had punched him several times with his fist. As a result, Stancil is said to have hit his head against the building and fallen to the ground.
Afterward, Stancil said his head hurt and he wanted to go to sleep -- and he did. However, the next morning, he was unresponsive.
Shortly thereafter, the PC statement goes on, Little was found and identified by Marshall, at which point he was taken into custody. During a subsequent interrogation, he denied he'd gotten into a fight with Stancil, even though he had bloody injuries on his hands. He explained away these wounds by claiming alternately that he'd gotten them after being struck by a machete or cutting himself on a fence, and maintained that Marshall had hit Stancil, not him.
At that point, Little was advised of his rights -- and based on the information obtained at the scene, Murray feels his arrest was totally justified. "Probable cause is what's required under the law to make an arrest, and there was definitely probable cause," he says. "And when you have a suspect who's not easily locatable later, and also a suspect in a homicide, you don't just walk away from that. You have to make an arrest out of a concern for public safety."
Still, the autopsy wasn't complete -- and Murray says waiting until the results were final wasn't an option, because of the aforementioned media agreement. So the DPD blasted out a press release about Little's arrest, which was widely reported.
Lieutenant Matt Murray in a 2013 image.
But then, something unexpected happened. "The coroner's office couldn't tell us with any degree of medical certainty that this was a homicide," Murray points out. "They couldn't tie the assault to the death and said it could be natural causes. So with a medical expert who couldn't say one way or another what caused this person's death, we had to release him."
This sequence of events wasn't unfair to Little, Murray believes, because "once the threshold reaches the level of probable cause required by the law, certain rights people have diminish. The expectation of privacy after you've been arrested for murder isn't the same, and we had probable cause. A judge signed the statement, and we put him in jail, which was the appropriate thing to do in the interest of public safety. But when we found out he may not have been responsible, we cleared him and let him out of jail."
To Murray, this action shows the DPD tried to do what was best for everyone -- keeping the media informed in a timely manner, but also "conducting a thorough investigation that immediately cleared him. That's protecting his rights, too."
Here's the probable cause statement, followed by our previous coverage.
Continue for our previous coverage of Aaron Little's arrest and release.