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

"Apparently the wounded Mrs. Black also possessed the power to make herself invisible, for she was able to do this in the presence of two police officers, a police sergeant, seven civilian witnesses, two EMT technicians, including one administering CPR, and scores of police flooding into the apartment, all without anyone seeing her. To support this fabrication it was necessary to have the officers out of the apartment so that the innuendo could be made that a family member must have snatched the missing 'knife handle' in their absence."

The lawyers questioned the officers' behavior in the aftermath of the shooting. "[The officers'] testimony was that they had both just emptied their revolvers in a 400-square-foot apartment containing nine civilians," they noted. "One person had been killed and another wounded, and they claimed to be under the belief that the doctor whom they were initially trying to rescue was dead or seriously injured.

"When the shooting stopped [the officers] without checking the condition of the doctor, Ivy Black, or any other civilian . . . immediately left the apartment to 'get a breath of fresh air.' Of course, as luck would have it, a 'dark object' (although never expressly identified as such, presumably the knife handle), which Petrullo had observed in a 'pool of blood' before leaving the apartment, was no longer there."

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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At the trial in 1997, Joseph Accetta told the jury that during assistant district attorney Glaser's grilling of him he was never asked if he had seen Earl Black with a knife.

The jury's verdict in favor of the Black family stunned the office of the city corporation counsel. Judge Ramirez dismissed motion after motion to set aside the verdict, adding that "an important public interest in vindicating the constitutional rights of the plaintiffs was in fact served."

Seeking to overturn the appellate panel's ruling, the Black family lawyers turned to attorney Randolph Scott-McLaughlin, a Pace University law professor, who is an expert on the Constitution. McLaughlin wasted no time poking holes in the court's reasoning behind its decision.

"Ivy Black was standing next to Earl when she herself was shot," Scott-McLaughlin reiterated in his failed motion to reargue the Black family's position. "According to Mrs. Black, Earl did not have a knife, a fact also denied by Earl's father Alvan, who watched from the living room as the police continued to shoot his son. The court has not addressed why it was impermissible for the jury to credit Mr. and Mrs. Black's testimony."

According to McLaughlin, even if the court felt Earl's parents would seem naturally biased against the cops, it should have carefully weighed the testimony of Emergency Medical Technician Michael Tambasco. McLaughlin excerpted the following exchange in court:

Q. When you arrived at the apartment can you tell us generally what you found?

A. We found pandemonium and a patient lying on the floor taking agonal breaths.

Q. Mr. Tambasco, when you first went in to see Earl Black, do you recall where his hands were, in what position?

A. They were down at his side.

Q. Did you notice anything in his hands?

A. No.

Q. Did you notice a knife in his hands?

A. No.

Q. When you went to the general area where Mr. Black was that you've indicated did you see any knife in that area?

A. No.

Q. Mr. Tambasco, I'm showing you [a photo of a knife blade purportedly recovered from the area where Earl Black's body had fallen]. When you responded to the area where Mr. Black was, you said you were doing CPR for about twenty minutes?

A. Overall, yeah.

Q. Did you ever see this knife in this area?

A. No.

Q. Did you ever see any knife?

A. No.

Q. Did you ever see a knife handle in the area?

A. No.

In addition, the Black family lawyers suggested that Dr. Saul Gorman may have had a reason to place a knife in Earl's hands. "At eight p.m. that evening Dr. Gorman . . . was treated at Coney Island Hospital for superficial lacerations," they noted. "Joseph Accetta had observed Dr. Gorman being knocked down into a dresser when the police and Earl tumbled onto the bed. Dr. Gorman's hospital record states that 'patient states he was assaulted by patient in patient's home.' The hospital record contains no reference to a knife or injury caused by a knife. Dr. Gorman testified that in the wake of the incident he and Coney Island Hospital were concerned about potential civil liability. Immediately after the incident Dr. Gorman was taken to the police precinct, where he remained for approximately six hours. The following day Dr. Gorman appeared at a joint press conference where he corroborated the [officers'] story."

Ivy Black felt she was doing the right thing when she called on mental health experts to help her son. As the late Joy Black recalled during her deposition, her mother had summoned the outpatient team when she observed Earl "getting a little nervous."

"Don't worry," Joy said one of the experts assured her, "We are capable people, nothing will go wrong."

Everything went wrong.

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