Volume 74, Number 1

April 1999

Screws, Koon, and Routine Aberrations: The Use of Fictional Narratives in Federal Police Brutality Prosecutions

David Dante Troutt

Despite periodic outcries in response to particular outrages, it remains notoriously difficult to prosecute police brutality. In this form-shattering Article, Professor Troutt attributes much of this difficulty to the overwhelming power of the stories mainstream American culture tells about the encounters leading to police violence. In this piece, Professor Troutt lays bare these authority narratives–particularly their racialized dimension–and demonstrates how they have been used to defeat, if not silence, the counternarratives related by victims and their representatives.

Professor Troutt focuses on the limited, though important, role that fictional counterstories can have in challenging the epistemological apparatus by which police brutality is supported. To illustrate this point, he offers a fictionalized narration of the events leading up to one of the most significant police brutality prosecutions of this century, Screws v. United States. Using his story as a starting point, Professor Troutt moves on to two broader discussions: First, he compares his account with the dominant narratives of the Screws case, adopted either explicitly or implicitly by almost all of the legal and jurisprudential actors who participated in that case. Second, he examines the theoretical justifications many of his colleagues offer for the use of storytelling in legal writing, highlighting the ways in which his narrative illustrates the possibilities for such storytelling and identifying several additional benefits not emphasized in the existing literature. He concludes with a discussion of the most famous police brutality case of recent times, the Rodney King beating case, Koon v. United States. In his discussion of Koon, Professor Troutt demonstrates the persistence of prevailing cultural narratives of police brutality cases, in part by drawing attention to the similarities in the ways in which the Screws and Koon cases were portrayed by the government and perceived by the public. In the end, through both argument and demonstration, Professor Troutt makes a strong case for the importance of literary fiction as a tool for challenging the core of dominant beliefs about race, crime, and social hierarchy implicit in reigning authority narratives.