Khaseem Greene’s Lawsuit Exposes Serious Cracks in the Justice System
January 2, 2020
Khaseem Greene is a free-agent linebacker in the NFL who last played for the Kansas City Chiefs in 2017. Greene was born in Elizabeth, New Jersey and attended Elizabeth High School, where he played football for the Elizabeth Minutemen.
He received a football scholarship to Rutgers University, where he played from 2008 to 2012. He was a two-time Big East Defensive Player of the Year and a selected as a first-team All-American by ESPN in his senior year. Greene was signed in the fourth round of the 2013 Draft by the Chicago Bears where his professional career got off to a nice start with this 98-yard pick-six.
Greene was active for 25 games in the 2013 and 2014 seasons with the Bears. In 2015 he was claimed off waivers by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and released prior to the start of the regular season. In November, he was picked up by the Detroit Lions and signed to the practice squad. On January 21, 2017, Greene signed a futures contract with the Kansas City Chiefs, but his career would soon come to a screeching halt in the town where it began—Elizabeth, New Jersey.
It began with a shooting incident outside a nightclub in his hometown of Elizabeth in Dec. 2016. The shooter, Jason Sanders initially told police that Greene handed him the gun he used before he started shooting erratically outside a crowded nightclub. The shots impacted a taxi but no one was injured during the shooting.
Greene was dumbfounded by the accusation and said he was neither a friend nor acquaintance of Sanders, who later admitted he lied. Nevertheless, prosecutors pursued Greene telling a Grand Jury they had video evidence of him passing the gun to Sanders. He was indicted on May 9, 2017, and cut by the Chiefs the same day.
As time passed, it became evident that there was no video evidence against him and in fact, nothing linking him to the shooting incident except the recanted statement of a man who had at least twenty-one arrests, six felony convictions, and one violation of probation for offenses including gun trafficking, assault, reckless endangerment, kidnapping, robbery, weapons, aggravated assault and narcotics, at the time of his arrest. Despite the obvious error, it soon became apparent that the error appeared to be a willful one. After vigorously pursuing Greene for months and effectively ending his career, prosecutors suddenly and without explanation dropped the charges against him. Greene’s civil lawsuit presents a chilling narrative of police and prosecutorial misconduct that presumably the prosecutors sought to suppress.
Greene’s problems began when Sanders was identified by a witness and taken into custody where the police conducted a video interview with him. Sanders stated that Khaseem Green gave him the gun used in the shooting, marking the first time that Greene was mentioned.
The interrogating officer refused to accept Sanders’ recantation and instead decided to pursue charges against Greene, despite any real evidence linking him to the incident.
The record shows that the Elizabeth PD officer Alfonso Colon who questioned Sanders prepared a Complaint-Warrant based on two blatantly false statements, after conferring with ADA Patricia Cronin of the Union County District Attorney’s office.
When Greene was made aware of the warrant, he responded through his attorney, who advised EPD that his client would not be speaking. When accompanied by his lawyer, Greene turned himself in, he was separated from counsel and taken to an interrogation room by himself where he pled the fifth.
Later, the District Attorney’s office allegedly fabricated and falsified evidence to the Grand Jury in order to obtain an indictment.
The video purported to show Greene handing Sanders the handgun; instead, it exonerated him. Not only did he not hand Sanders the gun, he was not even present but this rather important fact didn’t come out until much later.
Instead, immediately following the indictment, news flashed across TV-screens, newspapers and the internet.
Shortly after being cut, Greene hired a new attorney, Joshua F. McMahon of Shiller McMahon LLC, who immediately began asking prosecutors for a dismissal due to Greene’s innocence and the harm inflicted upon him by the false accusations.
As the prosecution continued, on June 5, McMahon filed a motion to dismiss due to government misconduct, or in the alternative, for an emergent probable cause hearing due to violations of the Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments as well as violating Rule of Professional Conduct 3.8 due to lack of probable cause. McMahon also wrote letters to the prosecutor’s office informing them that Greene had lost his job as a result of the false charges and that the continued prosecution had prevented him from obtaining employment in the NFL with other teams.
On June 21, McMahon filed a motion to suppress the unlawful arrest, a motion to compel discovery, and again requested a hearing. On June 23, he filed a motion for a speedy trial.
Finally, the District Attorney’s office responded and tried to cut a deal.
A month passed and rather than face discovery or a possible investigation of misconduct the DA, appeared before the judge, ex parte, without notice to Greene’s counsel, sought and obtained an order dismissing the case. It seems, as Greene said in this video, that the police and prosecutors saw him as a “big fish.”
The Civil Lawsuit and a Quest for Justice
Greene filed his lawsuit in federal court on May 8, 2018. In addition to monetary damages, he hopes to hold the Elizabeth Police Department and Union County District Attorney’s office accountable for their misconduct, which, as it turns out has a long history.
The complaint states that EDP ” has been placed on notice that there is a pervasive and systematic pattern, custom and practice within the EPD to unlawfully stop, search, and arrest.” It goes on to state that ” False reports are rendered, and prosecutions are officially pursued against the victims of these unlawful stops, searches, arrests, and unconstitutional beatings and excessively forceful arrests.”
This behavior has continued unimpeded the complaint alleges because investigations into complaints “are almost always a virtual whitewash, as EPD officers are rarely if ever, punished for such conduct even when investigations reveal conduct that requires action to be undertaken against the officers(s) involved to prevent such civil rights and constitutional violations in the future.”
A Google search uncovers many such instances, but the behavior remains largely hidden, partially because of the “whitewash,” and partially because of a peculiarity in New Jersey superior courts, in that criminal actions are not included on the public docket. Unless a civil case emerges from the misconduct, it is largely swept under the rug.
No Remorse—Just Immunity
The Prosecutor Defendants (UCPO) promptly, on July 30, filed a motion to be dismissed from Greene’s case, not bothering to deny the troubling allegations against them but simply claiming absolute prosecutorial immunity.
The quote from Chief Justice Marshall that appeared at the top of Greene’s reply brief to the Prosecutor Defendants’ motion to dismiss is a reminder sorely needed; it seems.
In his brief, McMahon acknowledged the difficult decisions police and prosecutors must make on a day to day basis but urged the court for accountability when those tasked to protect and serve do the opposite. “Greene prays that this Court will, instead, reject the UCPO Defendants’ attempts to shoehorn this misconduct—which can only be described as malicious, unethical, and criminal—into that category of ‘prosecutorial functions’ that would render prosecutors who commit, and conspire to commit, crimes against innocent persons from liability for the harm their criminal, and certainly not prosecutorial, conduct causes to innocent persons.” He reminds the court, “a prosecutor’s duty is to do justice. This includes prosecuting the guilty, as well as clearing the innocent, and not just obtaining convictions.”
Unfortunately, for some unethical prosecutors, the temptation of a “big fish” like a professional athlete is apparently too great a temptation to resist when seeking to add to their “trophy case.” Or perhaps the reasoning goes along the lines of “he’s just another black man; time to get him off the streets and into prison where he likely belongs.” Or perhaps there was an underlying resentment of successful black men. Whatever justification they may have used is troubling in and of itself, and it’s equally disturbing that Judge Susan D. Wigenton, a Bush appointee who has been on the federal bench since 2006 granted the prosecutors’ motion on November 1, dismissing them from the case.
The Police Defendants (EPD) filed an answer on August 27, asserting only affirmative defenses such as, “This paragraph is argumentative rather than stating facts. To the extent that it may be construed to allege facts against the Defendants, same are denied;” or “This paragraph alleges legal theories rather than setting forth facts. To the extent that the allegations of this paragraph may be construed to refer to these Defendants, same are denied,” or “These Defendants are without sufficient information to admit or deny the allegations of this paragraph and leave Plaintiff to his proofs.” The latter defense was presented in answer to paragraph 26 of the complaint (among others.) Paragraph 26 reads:
One is compelled to ask, “If the police ‘are without sufficient information to admit or deny the most basic facts about the case,” what business did they have charging anyone?”
EPD also made ample use of the following defense, “The allegations of this paragraph are denied,” adding to the absurdity already apparent. One use of the defense referred to paragraph 74 of the complaint.
Perhaps they should explain how they are able to declare that Greene didn’t experience “mental anguish, mental and emotional suffering, embarrassment, shame, and humiliation.”
Police also denied the allegations of paragraph 76, which is demonstratively true.
Consider these headlines:
- New York Times May 13, 2000 BLUE SHADOWS — A special report.; Suspicions Swirl Around New Jersey Police Clique
- News 12 New Jersey September 26. 2006 I-Team Investigates: Elizabeth police harassment claim
- Associated Press August 31, 2017 Elizabeth paid out $97,500 to settle police excessive force lawsuit
- Asbury Park Press/USA Today March 5, 2018 Police abuse, cover-up claim costs NJ $250K
- News Maven August 29, 2018 NJ Cop Indicted for Hitting, Dragging Handcuffed Man in Custody on Video
- Asbury Park Press/USA Today December 12, 2018 NJ police abuse: We fixed some problems, but more cops charged, more millions spent
- com April 26, 2019 New Jersey takes over police department, prosecutor’s office over bigotry
- Asbury Park Press/USA Today April 26, 2019 Elizabeth Police director used ‘n-word,’ derogatory slurs; county takes over internal affairs: NJ AG
- New York Times April 29, 2019 Police Director in New Jersey Resigns After Inquiry Finds He Used Racist and Sexist Slurs
- com May 20, 2019 Residents say this troubled N.J. police department ignores excessive force complaints. Records reveal it hasn’t upheld a case in years
- My Central Jersey/USA Today September 20, 2019 NJ police officer convicted of using counterfeit barcodes to scam department stores
- NJ.com October 3, 2019 He says cops beat him while handcuffed. His lawsuit calls for change in Elizabeth police
- Advocacy for Fairness in Sports October 31, 2019 When the Victim Becomes the Accused: The Kamrin Moore Story
So much for no history of misconduct.
The last article on the list tells the story of another NFL football player, wrongly accused in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Obviously the police and prosecutors learned nothing from their attempts to convict Khaseem Greene.
Anticipating discovery, EPD requested a confidentiality order, asking to file under seal any information that isn’t already in the public domain, and further asking that records obtained by counsel in discovery be destroyed following the conclusion of the lawsuit.
Even more disturbing is the fact that despite the State of New Jersey taking over both the police and prosecutor’s offices in April 2019, the abuses appear to be continuing. One would think a federal court judge would be disturbed by such conduct, but after granting immunity to the prosecutors, one must wonder if Judge Wigenton is up to the task. She has not yet ruled on the confidentiality order.
A strange twist
In December the case took a strange twist when UCPO, the former prosecutor defendants who’d been dismissed filed a motion for a protective order, again seeking immunity, claiming that immunity doesn’t only apply to liability but also “other burdens of litigation, including burdens involved in participating in discovery.” The gist of the brief can be summarized in this paragraph.
Scattered throughout the 14-page brief were references to the prosecutors’ absolute immunity, and avoidance of self-incriminating testimony.
Greene’s attorney responded in opposition, disputing that qualified immunity preempted the scope of questioning in depositions. No surprise there. What is surprising is that the Police Defendants and the plaintiff are in agreement in opposing UCPO’s request. In a letter to the magistrate judge working in coordination with Judge Wigenton, counsel for EPD wrote:
It appears that the police department fears that in order to save their own skins, the prosecutors will throw them under the bus, and from the tone of their brief, this seems to be a reasonable assumption.
Khaseem Greene’s case exemplifies much that is wrong America’s justice system, not the least of which is typically harsh treatment of African Americans as compared to whites. Those who opposed Colin Kaepernick’s message, dismissing him as privileged should remember that he and others will be football players for a short time and black men for life. What happened to Greene could happen to anyone and does happen to many. Fortunately, Greene is in a position to fight, whereas many others who find themselves in a similar position are left largely without options. Greene’s case also demonstrates how some prosecutors and police will bend the rules in order to capture a trophy—a prominent person like a sports figure.
The case has a long way to go before it’s resolved, but perhaps the dynamic in play—a former professional football player who is a former player due to misconduct in conjunction with the tension between the prosecutor and police might bring accountability that has thus far been lacking in Elizabeth, New Jersey.
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Sheilla Dingus founded Advocacy for Fairness in Sports in October 2016, after a stint with Defenders of the Wall, a New England Patriots based blog where she dived deep into the legal aspects of Deflategate. Along the way, she observed many inequities in sports and felt a need to address some of the under-reported stories in sports law. She draws from her background as a former professional dancer, who like many of the athletes she writes about, took an early retirement due to orthopedic injuries. After a return trip to college she worked for a legal software company, with seven years as a Project Manager and Analyst. She brings her analytical skills to the table in breaking down complex lawsuits, and enjoys pursuing her longtime interest in journalism.