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

The court, perhaps recognizing the turmoil that could erupt over its controversial ruling, also ordered a new trial, giving life to the Black family's allegations that prosecutors and police had obstructed justice.

Almost all involved in the heart-wrenching case agree that Earl Black's death will continue to haunt a criminal justice system that affirms over and over again that police shootings of minorities can be justified even if it turns out cops' lives weren't threatened. Although the shooting of Earl Black occurred under the administration of David Dinkins— then a staunch critic of the NYPD's inclination to the use of deadly force— the appellate panel's ruling bodes well for Rudy Giuliani, who, since taking over City Hall in 1994, has been a vociferous advocate of the argument that a perceived threat against an officer's life can be a basis for justifiable homicide.

Earl Black wasn't perceived as a threat to anyone until officers John Petrullo and Max Goldman arrived at his mother's apartment to assist the medical team in escorting him to a hospital.

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!"

Black had emigrated to the United States from Jamaica in the early '70s after graduating from technical school with a specialty in welding. He then worked for several years as a welder. Around 1975, when he was in his early twenties, Black was diagnosed with schizophrenia and became unable to take care of himself. In 1980, Ivy Black came to New York from Jamaica to help care for her son. Several years later, she was joined by Black's father, Alvan. Earl shared the apartment with his parents and younger sister, Joy.

After graduating from college, Joy developed a brain tumor that eventually left her a paraplegic. Joy died five years ago, but she was in the apartment when the cops shot her brother. During a deposition, she recalled being "very, very close" to Earl, who "took care of me all the time when I had no one else beside me."

Earl had friends, and, according to Joy, when he took his medicine he "acted normally and he could cook food and do everything normal people do."

In 1989, Earl was prescribed the antipsychotic drug Prolixin. Three years later, Ivy Black noticed Earl was avoiding taking his medicine, which had disagreeable side effects. Ivy grew concerned as Earl became less coherent, prone to insomnia, and increasingly difficult to communicate with. She sought assistance in having him evaluated and placed back on medication. Eventually, she was directed to the outpatient psychiatric service at Coney Island Hospital.

On the morning before Earl died, a psychiatric outpatient team, consisting of two nurses, the medical student, Joseph Acetta, and Dr. Saul Gorman, went to the Blacks' apartment and conducted an interview with Earl. They characterized Earl as "docile" and Gorman, in his written notes, pointed out that Earl showed "no homicidal or suicidal ideation." But Gorman decided that Earl (who sometimes thought he was God) should be hospitalized. Since they lacked the authority to take Earl into custody, the NYPD was summoned.

Petrullo and Goldman intercepted the dispatcher's call and went to the apartment. The next day, the story filtering out of One Police Plaza was that Earl had attacked the officers with a knife and was shot at point-blank range.

However, police did not disclose that the medical student, Accetta— who is now a practicing physician— had contradicted the cop's story that evening in a tape-recorded interview with assistant district attorney Richard Glaser. It was this interview of Accetta, the Black family lawyers insist, that helped convince the jury that the shooting was not justified.

Q. How many shots did you hear?

A. From what I remember . . . I could hear three rounds that were shot off in the room. It was like 'bang, bang, bang,' you know. And then . . . . I ran towards the door, and I was pretty much fixated on getting the hell out of there. And I'm playing with the locks, you know, just in a frenzy, trying to get out of there. And the lump of people pouring out of the room, tumbling down, I'm only looking back in glances to make sure there's no shooting near me, trying to get out that door. I just kept on hearing shots, shots, shots . . .

Q. Well, did you hear more than the three shots?

A. Yeah, but the only shots I can really remember after that, that stay in my mind, you know, are the ones when he eventually got to the ground. Like he went tumbling down from the, from his bedroom . . . to the hallway— tumbling down to the ground, and he got three shots pumped into him on the ground . . .

NYPD brass swiftly denied the officers fired at Earl from behind or fired into his body as he lay dying on the floor. As for the "foot-long carving knife" Earl supposedly brandished at the officers, that then became a two and three-quarter-inch tip of a knife, which cops said was recovered at the scene (several hours after the shooting)— six feet from where Earl's twisted body lay.

"Out of the cesspool of official corruption and perjury . . . " the Black family lawyers argued in court papers, "perhaps the most appalling and pernicious slander is . . . that . . . Ivy Black— a sixty-eight-year-[old] grandmother, who had just been shot, and who had just witnessed the brutal killing of her son— took [the missing knife handle].

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