Murder on a Liquor High

A 17-year-old is dead. his alleged killer is only 15, troubled, and facing life in prison

About 20 past midnight on the wintry day of December 6, James Harris, a bumbling 15-year-old roughneck high on Alizé liqueur, hovered momentarily over the bullet-riddled body of a high school senior he'd mistaken for a member of a Brooklyn gang and gunned down at point-blank range.

According to Larry Bennett, a 17-year-old companion of Harris who reconstructed that tragic scenario before a grand jury on January 5, the cold-blooded murder of Dimitri Augustine on the corner of Flatbush and Snyder avenues, sent him into shock.

Bennett testified that Harris then fled the scene, and ran toward him, recalls Bennett's attorney, Carl Thomas. Bennett, he says, had little time to ponder the consequences of protecting his friend— a stoned 15-year-old with a smoking gun.

"Larry Bennett testified that he saw Harris shoot the victim, that Harris had the gun in his hand," says Thomas. But Bennett wrenched the gun from Harris's hand. He testified that he took the weapon because some of Harris's friends had told him that Harris had been on a drinking binge.

"He feared Harris would start shooting again," according to Thomas. Several witnesses, Thomas insists, back up Bennett's story. Bennett then ran off and tossed the weapon into a churchyard cemetery.

That is where Police Officer Debra Brooks encountered Bennett and where he told her about an attempted robbery that resulted in a fatal shooting, according to a Criminal Court complaint. Bennett testified that after he was arrested and handcuffed, Harris stumbled toward the cops shouting, "Take me! Take me instead! He's my brother!"

Police charged Bennett with hindering prosecution (by "rendering criminal assistance" to Harris) and fourth-degree criminal possession of a weapon. He is free on $10,000 bail, secured with money his sister had saved to pay for her tuition at Long Island University. Bennett is due back in Criminal Court on February 1.

Harris, who was apprehended at the scene, is charged with two counts of second-degree murder, two counts of first-degree attempted robbery, and two counts of criminal possession of a weapon. He is being held at the Crossroads Juvenile Center in Brownsville.

A grand jury reportedly has issued an indictment against Harris, which was expected to be filed on January 12 in state supreme court in Brooklyn. Harris, who will be tried as an adult, faces a maximum of nine years­to-life in prison if convicted. But legal experts say that he will be sentenced as a juvenile, and if it is determined that he was severely impaired by alcohol at the time of the crime, murder charges could be reduced to manslaughter. He could be back on the streets in three years.

Harris denies he is the shooter, says the teenager's attorney, Casilda Roper Simpson, who adds that "a trained police officer should have known that he was drunk" when he was arrested and interrogated.

The killing of Dimitri Augustine is bound to intensify the debate about the promotion of alcohol to black teenagers, and the proliferation of liberal gun laws that allow gunrunners to smuggle the weapons into New York.

Harris allegedly had consumed large amounts of Alizé, a blend of passion-fruit juice and cognac. Alizé, a French import, has become the drink of choice for many black teenagers who see their favorite hip hop artists guzzling it during live performances.

Critics like Harlem's Reverend Calvin Butts, however, have long charged that malt liquor companies are using rappers to glamorize drinking through deceptive ads that, in one infamous case, promised the drink would improve male sexual prowess. They have argued that the malt liquors advertised primarily in minority neighborhoods— Olde English and St. Ides— have higher alcohol content than the beer pushed in white neighborhoods.

If alcohol did not induce James Harris to commit murder, gun manufacturers certainly should be saddled with the blame, argues Thomas. "Certainly a poor 15-year-old does not have the resources to purchase a loaded handgun. We ought to hold gun manufacturers and distributors accountable," says Thomas, who mentioned the case of seven people whose lives were devastated by gun violence. The victims filed a lawsuit seeking damages from the industry, which got underway in Brooklyn federal court last week.

allegedly intoxicated and armed, James Harris was a time bomb waiting to explode. Witnesses to the murder of Dimitri Augustine, the son of Haitian immigrants, reportedly told investigators that before the shooting Harris told his companions he had nothing to live for because both his mother and father are dead.

There were times when Harris felt like lashing out against his meddlesome classmates at Brooklyn's Erasmus High School, who teased him about the deaths of his parents, reputed drug addicts. They reportedly died of AIDS when Harris was nine.

"He said he used to get angry but he realized he had to calm down," says Casilda Roper Simpson. After his mother died in 1994, Harris went to live with his grandmother and three cousins. Talking through Roper Simpson, the boy's grandmother says Harris became more distraught when his father died almost a year later.

Everything seemed to collapse around Harris. He got into trouble and was arrested on two separate occasions for robbery and marijuana possession. He was in the ninth grade and doing poorly. Then the longtime Boy Scout quit his troop last year "because it wasn't fun anymore," his attorney quoted him as saying.

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