In Search of a Right

The 13-year struggle of targets in a racial dragnet reveals the elusive nature of justice

 ONEONTA, NEW YORK—On a summer afternoon, surrounded by emerald hills and brilliant blue skies, it is not so hard to see why Tyrone Lohr stays in Oneonta. He likes the pace of this 14,000-person town. It is calmer than Queens, the city borough where he grew up. There is no traffic to speak of, although residents expect some bustle when the fall term begins at the town's state college. Lohr, 31, graduated from there in 1996, landed a good job, and settled in.

It should be a great place for Lohr to live, except that here, on September 4, 1992, just moments into his fresh-man year, he became one of several hundred innocent black residents targeted in an infamous police manhunt.

Someone had broken into a local home in the middle of the night. The victim said the intruder was black. Over the course of five days, state, county, and town police joined forces to interrogate scores of people, all black, at their homes or workplaces, outside classrooms, at the bus depot, at traffic stops, and on sidewalks. There were approximately 400 black students at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, known as SUCO. There were several hundred black residents. Authorities had a good shot at meeting their declared goal: to track down every black person in town. In the end, no one included in the sweep turned out to be the culprit.

Oneonta student rally, September 1992
photo: Bruce Endries/The Daily Star
Oneonta student rally, September 1992

The racial dragnet ignited angry protests. The humiliating events cried out for fast justice. Yet remarkably, 13 years later, the targeted still wait.

Dismissed at federal court, long stymied at state court, the plaintiffs can hardly be blamed for suspecting that the great constitutional principle of equality is a sham. But now this class action suit, one of the longest litigated civil rights cases in the nation, is finally headed to a trial this fall.

"It is about time," says Lohr. "I'm always aware that race can get pulled on me. It's my responsibility to keep on this, to keep it from happening again to someone else."

With mixed hopes and much indignation, some of the plaintiffs spoke to the Voice about wrongs long ignored, wrongs compounded with time. The harm they describe is greater and more complex than its parts. Theirs is a story not just of offensive incidents, but of permanent membership in an unwelcome minority, of being constantly watched, of racial inequality that is too often reinforced by agents of the state.

Tyrone Lohr in Oneonta
photo: Chisun Lee

Sheryl Champen
photo: Chisun Lee

A dark hand in the night

The crime was serious. But except for a few certainties, the truth was murky and became murkier with time. It happened in a house located down a narrow road, through fields and trees, where just a few other houses stand. Locals say that the scene has not changed much, except that there were no streetlights on the road back then.

A 77-year-old woman visiting from out of town was awakened in that house sometime after midnight on Friday, September 4, 1992, by an intruder. She had been sleeping on her stomach in a first-floor bedroom, and the man had either lain or sat on top of her, she later recalled. She never saw his face or his full form, only a dark hand gripping a knife. He warned her to "do as I say" and stuffed a bandanna in her mouth.

Resisting, she turned and managed to push him away. Sometime in the struggle she suffered several cuts and, she later said, the attacker might have cut himself with the knife. He ran from the room and fled the house. Police initially called the crime an attempted burglary but later described it as an attempted rape.

The victim, since deceased, told police that her attacker had the vocal "timbre" and dark hand of a black man, and from his speed appeared to be young. Deposed in September 1995 by lawyers for the plaintiffs, she said, "I am well acquainted with his black arm, with black arms, because there are different shades and so on, I know. My son-in-law is black. One of my grandnephews is black. I know black. And certainly I didn't say it in a derogatory way when I identified him as black, but the voice and the skin did it." Voice, skin color, gender, and seeming youth were all the description she was able to give the police. The attacker also left behind bloodstains on some of the doors and walls.

The investigators theorized that the intruder might have cut himself on the hand or arm, since blood was found on the doorknobs. Along the way, this possibility became a public certainty to the police. It also became integral to the investigation, a detail used to justify the inspection of the bodies of hundreds of innocent black residents. The victim herself said, "I didn't know where he had cut himself. How was I to know?"

Scott Fein, a partner at the Albany firm Whiteman Osterman & Hanna, which has represented the black plaintiffs, pro bono, from the start, says that even if the cut hand or any clue had been certain, nothing could justify pursuing every black person in town. Over the dragnet's five days, he says, investigators had plenty of time to stop and reconsider their actions. Instead, they forged ahead, in flagrant disregard, according to Fein, of his clients' constitutional rights to be free from discrimination and unreasonable search and seizure.

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