Under the Gun

Tales of anguish fill a Brooklyn courtroom as the kin of shooting victims battle the firearms industry

Freddie Hamilton cried as she sat in the back of the courtroom, listening to the story of a woman she did not know. Inside the witness box, Veronica Trott fingered a crumpled piece of Kleenex, swallowed hard, and told a few dozen strangers about the night a young man with a 9mm handgun killed her son. Then Trott, 45, walked slowly back to her seat in the courtroom's spectator section. Another stranger, Gail Fox, squeezed her arm around Trott's shoulders.

Listening to Trott's testimony, Hamilton, 55, and Fox, 45, felt an instant sense of camaraderie. All three women had sons who fell victim to handguns. "It's the empathy— knowing what they felt, and what they have lived through," Hamilton says. "When something like this happens, a little piece of you dies." Now these mothers are among the seven plaintiffs battling the gun industry in Federal District Court in Brooklyn.

Their lawsuit aims to hold more than 40 gun manufacturers and distributors responsible for the deaths and injuries of their kin. The plaintiffs charge that these companies engaged in negligent marketing and distribution by oversupplying firearms to southern states with weak guncontrol laws and then turning a blind eye when some of these weapons ended up in the hands of New York criminals. The gun companies dispute these claims. They insist they fully cooperate with law enforcement efforts to stop gun trafficking and that they do not oversupply certain states.

Before the shooting: Stephen Fox was 15 when a friend shot him, leaving a bullet in his brain.
courtesy of Elisa Barnes
Before the shooting: Stephen Fox was 15 when a friend shot him, leaving a bullet in his brain.

Manhattan attorney Elisa Barnes, who filed this lawsuit in 1995, found many of her plaintiffs through gun-control groups. A teen-ager working in Barnes's law office recruited the mother of a slain friend. Another plaintiff contacted Barnes after spotting an ad in The Chief, a newspaper for municipal employees. The plaintiffs in this case include one wife, one father, and five mothers of gunshot victims. They range from a nursing-home aide and a stay-at-home mom to an urban planner and the director of a child-welfare agency.

Life has been an emotional roller coaster for these plaintiffs ever since their trial started on January 4. Over the last few weeks, each has made the pilgrimage to the sixth floor of the federal courthouse in Brooklyn to testify before a jury of 10 women and two men. Jurors' eyelids droop during the testimony of some expert witnesses, including law enforcement officials and college professors. But no one has dozed while a plaintiff was on the stand.

The plaintiffs' stories are riveting. But they constitute only a tiny fraction of the total court testimony— just a few hours over the course of a trial that is expected to last at least a month. The jurors will likely make their decision based not on the plaintiffs' stories, but on what they learn about how responsibly the gun industry operates. Nevertheless, the plaintiffs' role is critical. As they take their turns on the witness stand, they are powerful reminders of the human cost of gun violence. But in their fight to win this lawsuit, the plaintiffs have had to sacrifice their privacy and discuss the most painful experiences of their lives before a room full of strangers.

Barnes hopes that her clients find the trial experience empowering. Glancing around the wood-paneled, high-ceilinged courtroom of Judge Jack B. Weinstein, the lawyer says, "I think [the plaintiffs] were shocked at having the issues surrounding their personal tragedy heard and aired in such a formal setting . . . with the [former] head of the ATF coming in on their case and jurors taking four weeks out of their lives."

"where do you live? How many children do you have? What type of work do you do?" All the plaintiffs faced the same queries as they settled into the chair on the witness stand. The details of their lives that emerged were sometimes mundane, sometimes funny. But Barnes and her team of attorneys did not wait long before peppering each plaintiff with tougher questions, like "When was the last time you saw your son?"

At first, Damon Slade sounded like an ordinary teenager. His mother, Andrea Slade-Lewis, told the jury that he had collected comic books and baseball cards. But soon her testimony turned to the 1993 night that her 18-year-old son was shot inside the elevator of a Yonkers apartment building. Damon's friend, who was with him that evening, later told his mother about her son's final minutes. "When Damon was dying," Slade-Lewis testified, "[his friend] was holding Damon in his hand, and Damon says to him: 'Tell my mother that I love her and take care of my sisters.' "

When she got her turn on the witness stand, Freddie Hamilton proudly recounted the successes of her five surviving children, who include an attorney, a social worker, and a Paine-Webber employee. A few minutes later, however, she faced questions about why her 17-year-old son Njuzi Ray was not attending high school in 1993, when he was fatally shot on a Brooklyn street corner. Prior to his murder, Njuzi had battled mental illness. "We took him to a psychiatrist," his mother told the jurors. "Eventually, the diagnosis was manic-depressive."

Afterward, on a bench outside the courtroom, Hamilton pondered her testimony. "I'm an extremely private person, so I had to discuss on the witness stand things that family members did not know," she said. "My son was a very private person, too. At one point, I thought, 'If he was at this [trial], he would die all over again.' If he saw me sharing all his personal business, he'd say, 'What's wrong with you?' "

Despite her position as the lead plaintiff in this case, which is known as Hamilton v. Accu-Tek, Hamilton harbors no ill will toward the attorneys who work for her opponents. "I don't see these guys as villains," she says, gesturing toward the 11 lawyers who represent the gun industry. "I see them as people doing their jobs."

In fact, Hamilton and Anne G. Kimball, the lawyer for Smith & Wesson and Colt, greet each other warmly each morning. Some days, they joke about the weather. About a recent newspaper story that featured Hamilton, Kimball told her twice: "It was a good article!"

Not all the plaintiffs like Kimball, however. Gail Fox averts her eyes when the attorney passes her in the corridor outside the courtroom. "I have a lot of animosity toward her [or] any woman involved on the other side," Fox whispers. "I know she must have some children, some grandchildren of her own. I only want for mine what she wants for hers."

Kimball, who has four children and four grandchildren, says she feels for all the plaintiffs. "They're very sympathetic stories," she says. "Whether we're lawyers or not, [and] no matter what side of the case we're on, as human beings, we all empathize. Violence is bad. Crime is bad. Crime with guns is bad. But that's very different from saying a legally manufactured and distributed product used by criminals is at fault."

On January 6, Kimball delivered the defendants' opening statement, telling the jury: "You can't accept any argument that shifts blame from the cold-blooded killers." Such a assertion made little sense to some plaintiffs. The shooters did not seem so different from the victims in several of their cases. In the court hallway after Kimball's opening statement, Veronica Trott said, "The people who killed our kids were kids." Gail Fox added: "I live half a block away from the kid who shot my son."

The only gunshot victim in this lawsuit who survived is Fox's son, Stephen. A tall, soft- spoken 19-year-old, Stephen has attended almost every day of the trial. He does not speak much, but the majority of people in the courtroom knew his story before he stepped onto the witness stand. Four years ago, a friend accidentally shot Stephen with a .25-caliber handgun. The bullet is still lodged in his brain.

Stephen told the jurors about his shooting when he testified on January 20. "Me and [my friend] were talking for a while and then I saw him raise his arm up with a black object, and the next thing I knew I woke up in my mother's arms," Stephen said. "I couldn't move at all— my arms or my legs."

The plaintiffs have asked for damages in this case, so Stephen testified about what the shooting had cost him— physically, mentally, and in terms of future earnings. To the untrained eye, Stephen looks perfectly normal, except that he walks with a limp. But for close to an hour, Stephen spoke about his battle to relearn everything, from how to walk and talk to how to button, zipper, and snap. Once a devoted basketball player, he can now do little more than shoot a few hoops while standing in one spot. He informed the jury that he is studying for his high school equivalency diploma and hopes to become a carpenter. But the expert who testified after Stephen told a different story.

Barnes whisked Stephen and his mother out of the courtroom as Morris Ehrenreich, a rehabilitation specialist, walked toward the witness stand. "I felt that it would not be valuable or good for him to listen to this," Ehrenreich explained. Then he delivered his devastating diagnosis.

The bullet that tore into Stephen's skull had robbed him of 37 I.Q. points, leaving him "mentally deficient," according to Ehrenreich. He said it is "extremely unlikely" that Stephen will regain the full use of his brain and will probably need to reside in a supervised setting for the rest of his life. As Ehrenreich detailed these limitations, Stephen himself lumbered back into the courtroom to retrieve his parka.

Ehrenreich stopped talking. Everyone stared. Gesturing toward Stephen, the specialist said, "I'm going to ask . . . " Barnes jumped up from her seat and ushered Stephen back out. Then the witness continued his bleak assessment of Stephen's future. "He's going to be limited to jobs where he has one or two tasks— jobs that are minimum-wage or a little better than that," Ehrenreich said. He rattled off possible careers: counter clerk, dispatcher, cashier.

While each of the plaintiffs in this case had testified, the lawyers for the gun industry had listened quietly and then declined to cross-examine. But with Ehrenreich on the stand— and Stephen still in the hallway— E. Gordon Haesloop, who represents a gun distributor, took off the kid gloves. The attorney suggested that maybe Stephen's skills had not declined as much as Ehrenreich said, because the teenager had not been such a stellar student in the first place.

"In fact, he had to repeat the eighth grade— and that was prior to his accident," Haesloop said.

Turning to Ehrenreich, the lawyer asked, "Would you consider Stephen to be a less-than-average motivated student?"

"Yes," Ehrenreich replied.

"And he has a problem with motivation today," Haesloop said.

Ehrenreich hastened to clarify. "They're different problems," he said. But the lawyer's message was clear: Stephen may have a bullet in his brain, but his loss of intelligence and potential had not been as great as Ehrenreich had stated.

While the specialist and lawyer squabbled over Stephen's skills, the teenager himself sat outside the courtroom on a hard wooden bench next to his mother. Both looked drained. If they had just heard the testimony inside courtroom 10, they would have been even more distressed.

Glancing over at Gail Fox, Michael S. Feldberg, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said, "How many people would have the ability to go through what she's gone through with that level of grace? The same is true for each of the plaintiffs. They've taken on this tremendous burden to make it a little less likely that someone will have to suffer the way they did. I think the plaintiffs are heroes."

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