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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.
With the advent of the Crips and Bloods in New York City, Harris became embroiled in a violent struggle with a Crips set that was trying to force him to pledge allegiance to the gang. Harris and his attorney did not identify the posse that insists on random slashings and sexual assaults as initiation rites.
"He said that they have been after him and a friend for two or three years," Roper Simpson says. "My client said he and his friend told the Crips they don't want to belong to the Bloods or the Crips, they just wanna be kids. But the gang members told them, 'You're either with us or you're against us.' "
In late September, about six members of a Flatbush Crips set allegedly fired upon Harris and his friend. The friend, whom Roper Simpson refused to identify, was hit and is paralyzed. Then on Thanksgiving night, the same thugs chased Harris home in a hail of bullets. Despite the attempts on his life, Harris ignored his grandmother's pleas to stay off the streets.
around 11:45 on the night of December 5, Larry Bennett, on his way to a Christmas party in Flatbush, ran into James Harris and a group of about five youths who had just left a cinema. "He said he had known them for some time and hung out with them," says Bennett's attorney, Carl Thomas.
Unbeknownst to Bennett, Harris and his friends had been involved in an altercation earlier that evening with another group of teenagers. As Harris's group accompanied Bennett to the party, they saw three youths whom Harris and his friends mistakenly believed were the same young men they'd rumbled with.
"As they were crossing the street to confront these guys," according to Thomas, "they realized they were not the same guys they had the fight with earlier that night but were the same guys they had had a fight with on a prior occasion." Bennett told Thomas that someone in Harris's group shouted, "Let's rob them!"
"He said when he heard that, he went back to the side of the street where he had met Harris and his friends," Thomas says. As Harris and his friends rolled on the youths, Bennett watched the confrontation shift to the corner of Flatbush and Snyder.
"All of a sudden he saw Harris take out a gun and shoot one of the guys," Thomas says. "He said he heard about three or four shots then saw the guy drop to the ground."
Police said Augustine, a senior at New Utrecht High School who intended to enroll at the State University of New York at Stonybrook this year, was taken to Kings County Hospital, where he died. The medical examiner's office said Augustine died from multiple gunshot wounds.
Harris told his lawyer an entirely different story. He said that as he was leaving a Flatbush nightclub with three friends, members of the Crips gang, their faces disguised with blue bandanas, the gang's signature color, began to shoot at him.
"James Harris said one of the kids got shot and he does not know about anyone in his group firing any shots," Roper Simpson told the Voice. "He said if anyone in his group had a gun he didn't see it because he was running away."
As to how Harris wound up in the clutches of the law that fateful morning, Roper Simpson offers that after Harris saw Larry Bennett in the custody of the police, he went over to the cops and asked them what precinct they were taking Bennett to because he wanted to notify Bennett's mother. She said the cops searched Harris and found marijuana on him and took him to the 70th Precinct station house.
james harris has since sobered up from his Alizé high. Apart from denying that he "intentionally caused the death" of Dimitri Augustine, the troubled life of this 15-year-old remains bottled up inside. He won't talk about his parents. He won't talk to the psychiatrists at the Crossroads Juvenile Center, whom he's accused of trying to "meddle in his business." But it doesn't seem like James Harris can hold out much longer, according to his attorney, who visited him last week. Harris has begun to question the kind of justice that allows Larry Bennett to remain free on bail while he's locked up. Why did cops believe Bennett's story and not his? Will he ever go home again?