Getting Away with Justifiable Murder

A new court ruling opens old wounds for the family of a psychiatric patient gunned down by police in 1992

Murder is easy. But getting away with "justifiable homicide" seems easier if you are two white cops and your victim is a Jamaican immigrant, poor, schizophrenic, and, as one angry civil rights attorney put it, "deemed expendable by powerful judicial overseers."

Seven years after the officers fatally shot Earl Black nine times, claiming that the emotionally disturbed man had lunged at them with a knife in his parents' apartment in the Flatlands section of Brooklyn, a four-judge panel of the state's highest court has refused to reconsider an earlier decision that reversed a 1997 bombshell finding by a Brooklyn Supreme Court jury. The jury concluded that prosecutors and police had participated in a conspiracy to cover up the facts surrounding the shooting.

The appellate panel also threw out a $6 million award to Black's family and even ordered his 75-year-old indigent mother, Ivy, to cough up $100 in court costs.

Survivor: On seeing her son blown away by police, Ivy Black, who was also shot, told his killers, "The same thing you did to my son is going to happen to you, from generation to generation!"
Photograph by Sandra-Lee Phipps
Survivor: On seeing her son blown away by police, Ivy Black, who was also shot, told his killers, "The same thing you did to my son is going to happen to you, from generation to generation!"

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Police and prosecutors claimed that on May 27, 1992, officers John Petrullo and Max Goldman went to Ivy Black's apartment at 4200 Avenue K in Flatlands after someone called 911. According to authorities, Earl Black, a team of nurses, and a psychiatrist, Dr. Saul Gorman, were in the apartment, and the 42-year-old Black refused their suggestions to take his medication or go to the hospital. Black then slashed the psychiatrist with a knife, and attempted to stab the officers as they backed away. Police said both officers emptied their revolvers, hitting Black several times and his mother once in the upper chest.

A grand jury concluded that the officers were justified in killing Black.

But Black family attorneys Michael P. Barnes, Robert Spevack, and William A. Thomas, balked at prosecutors' and police eagerness to vindicate a shooting, which Barnes, in a letter to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, would later charge was "reckless and unjustified."

The cops' version, the Blacks' lawyers emphasized in a separate court document, "bore far greater resemblance to a grade B horror film than anything that could have occurred in real life." The lawyers parodied the officers' claim that they fired point-blank at Black as he stormed toward them. "Despite this massive firepower and injuries [to Black, the cops] claimed that Earl was neither stopped nor slowed, indeed, that the bullets 'had no effect' as Earl continued to stalk the terrified policemen from one end of the apartment to the other, arm upraised, holding his 'foot-long carving knife,' until he finally collapsed to the ground, still holding the knife."

The lawyers' first task— Barnes explained in his letter to the civil rights commission— was to attempt to prove "deliberate misfeasance by district attorneys [who] protect police in civilian death situations." Barnes and his associates began to wag their fingers at prosecutors in the office of Brooklyn District Attorney Charles J. Hynes.

"The cover-up involved the suppression of the identity of eyewitnesses, generation of false investigative accounts, and the deliberate failure of the district attorney to elicit critical testimony damaging to the police from an eyewitness called before the grand jury," Barnes complained.

The family sued the city for the wrongful death of Earl Black. According to the lawyers, for three years Hynes's office refused to hand over key documents and provide information as to the whereabouts of witnesses. Finally, after the Black family lawyers asked a judge to hold his office in contempt, Hynes gave up.

Armed with what they claimed was "hard evidence of a district attorney deliberately subverting an investigation of the police," the lawyers asked a jury in state supreme court in Brooklyn to find that the cops' actions were criminal and that their superiors conspired with prosecutors to deny the family their day in court.

On June 7, 1997, the jury ruled that officers Petrullo and Goldman had not been justified in shooting Black and that authorities had withheld the identity and statement of an eyewitness, a former medical student, Joseph Accetta, who denied that Earl Black had wielded a knife. The city appealed, claiming there had not been a conspiracy and pleading that the verdict be set aside. On March 22 of this year, the appellate court, stating that there had been only three witnesses in the room with Earl Black— the two cops and Gorman— ruled for the city, and overturned the jury's verdict.

"At most, the evidence showed that the [officers'] recollections of the events differed from those of the [Black family] and their witnesses, and that there may have been some delay in turning over to the [Black family] attorney some of the items sought," the panel wrote. "However, even those items were turned over at least a year prior to the trial of this action. This evidence is insufficient, as a matter of law, to show the existence of any conspiracy on the part of, among others, the defendants, to attempt to deprive the plaintiffs of their right of access to the courts. . . . "

The panel ruled that presiding judge Gilbert Ramirez had erred in not setting aside the jury verdict and granting the cops a new trial.

"Here, the testimony of [Officers] John Petrullo and Max Goldman, as well as that of Dr. Saul Gorman, the only three persons who were present where the altercation began in the bedroom, was to the effect that [Black] grabbed a knife from the top of a dresser in his room, started swinging it, and, while struggling with Dr. Gorman, slashed Dr. Gorman's face," the panel argued. "There was also testimony that during the altercation, [Black] refused commands to drop the knife and continued on towards the . . . police officers with the knife in his hand . . . Under such circumstances, a jury finding that the use of deadly force was not justified based on the testimony of the [Black family] as well as that of Dr. Joseph Accetta, is against the weight of the evidence."

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