Grand Jury's Out

Brooklyn D.A. Accused of Failing to Indict Cops Who Kill

Civil rights lawyer Norman Siegel called Hynes's track record with police misconduct "disappointing" and a fall from his sterling reputation in the 1986 Howard Beach case. As a state special prosecutor, Hynes won acclaim for securing convictions against four white toughs who chased a black man, Michael Griffith, to his death in Howard Beach, Queens. "Because Hynes became a hero in the Howard Beach situation, there were greater expectations with regard to him being a prosecutor on cases where African Americans' rights were violated," Siegel said. "If he didn't have Howard Beach, there would not be this tension and disappointment. Maybe it wasn't fair to hold him to a higher standard or expectation, but that's what happened. Now his reputation is that he's extremely deferential to law enforcement."

In a statement from his spokesman, Hynes told the Voice: "There is no doubt we presented evidence aggressively and thoroughly and I am confident that the Assistant D.A. who brought the case to the grand jury did his job the way it should be done."

At a February 18 press conference denouncing the grand jury's failure to indict Officer Neri, black officials did not attack Hynes by name but repeated the old saying that a prosecutor could indict a ham sandwich if he wanted. "D.A.'s have so much influence over grand juries that they can get an indictment on a ham sandwich but not a ham cop," said Brooklyn councilman Charles Barron, who is running for mayor.

Representative Charles Rangel agreed. "There are a lot of undertones as to what persuades a grand jury and quite frankly, I, being a former prosecutor, [know] it's very difficult not to get an indictment no matter where you are," he said.

The next day, Reverend Al Sharpton directly accused Hynes of not prosecuting police misconduct and vowed to evoke the Stansbury case in his presidential campaign.

Answering Sharpton, Hynes brought up the 1997 police torture of Abner Louima in a Flatbush precinct's bathroom. The D.A. said he led a grand jury within three days of the attack and made the case for the federal authorities, where it was prosecuted because of stronger penalties. Hynes's office also secured a manslaughter indictment of a white federal agent for fatally shooting an unarmed black drug suspect in the back on May 1, 2002.

With the Stansbury case, Hynes and his supporters say his office worked hard on pursuing an indictment against Neri for criminally negligent homicide or manslaughter. "Nobody held back on this; we gave it our best shot," said a law enforcement official close to Hynes. "Politically, what this grand jury ended up doing was bad for us."

After Stansbury was shot, Hynes moved quickly, announcing that the case would go to a grand jury. For this case, Hynes tapped one of his senior deputies, Assistant District Attorney Charles Guria. A specialist in police misconduct cases, Guria, an African American, had been a staff counsel to the Mollen Commission on Police Corruption.

The 23-member grand jury, which included 16 blacks and Latinos, heard evidence over several days before clearing Neri on February 17. The officer's lawyer, Stuart London, said Neri, 35, saved himself by telling his story before the secret panel. "If he didn't testify, he probably could have been indicted for manslaughter," London said.

Crying at points during his 70-minute appearance, Neri told the panel he had been surprised, didn't consciously fire his gun, and has no memory of his finger squeezing the trigger, London said. While patrolling on a roof of the Armstrong Houses, Neri and his partner went to a door for a stairwell check. At that moment, on the other side of the door, Stansbury and two friends approached the top of the stairs and were about to reach the roof.

Neri, who has never before fired his weapon in 12 years on the force, had to compose himself and drink some water while expressing remorse over Stansbury's death, London said. Several people on the grand jury became visibly emotional.

During the routine patrol, even though there was no specific danger, Neri walked with gun in hand. An NYPD training officer told the grand jury that an individual cop has the right to decide when to take out his gun. Neri was also helped by forensic evidence that the shot to Stansbury came at an angle, contradicting Stansbury's two friends who claimed it was a straight-on hit.

Stansbury's relatives don't believe Neri fired accidentally and charged he misled the grand jury. At the family's request, the United States Attorney for the Eastern District is now reviewing the case. "They didn't hear the right story," Stansbury Sr. said. "They didn't hear the truth. What they heard was something that was made up by the PBA"—the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association.

Legal experts say it's not that the grand jury failed, but that the law builds in a lot of wiggle room for police officers who make mistakes, even fatal ones. "To attach criminal responsibility and put the cop in jail is a tall order," said attorney Joel Berger, who specializes in police misconduct cases. "The system overall doesn't want to do that because it's a split-second decision and it may have been an error in judgment or an accident, but is it criminal? The answer is usually no."

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