Death Takes a Holiday

On Thanksgiving eve, a community mourns alone for yet another victim of a police shooting

But the nagging matter that wouldn't go away as speakers addressed the funeral service last week was why the police department had been unable to muster its much-vaunted negotiating talent that night. "Why is there such deliberate caution in some neighborhoods, yet such recklessness in our community?" asked Al Sharpton in his eulogy.

Taharka Robinson, 38, a political activist whose mother, Annette, is a state assemblywoman, spoke as well. He ticked off a list of names from that still-growing roster of unarmed victims killed in police confrontations. His list began with the name of Randolph Evans. Robinson would have been only seven years old when Evans, who was just 15 at the time, was killed in 1976. But all these years later, Evans's story lives in memory, not only because of the rank injustice of his death, but because of the stunning turn that criminal justice took after the policeman who shot him was charged with homicide.

Evans had been standing outside his apartment house in East New York when police officer Robert Torsney headed into the complex to investigate a complaint of an armed man on the premises. As the officer was leaving, Evans began to speak to him. Instead of answering, Torsney inexplicably pulled his revolver and fired, killing the 15-year-old with a single point-blank shot to the head. The officer then got back into his car and drove to the 75th Precinct.

The funeral of Khiel Coppin, an unarmed 18-year-old killed by police.
photo: Jake Price
The funeral of Khiel Coppin, an unarmed 18-year-old killed by police.

Torsney's initial claim was that he had seen Evans reach for a gun. But no gun was found, and the cop was soon indicted, charged with second-degree murder. That move alone was hailed by the black community as an immense step toward justice. But those hopes soon dissipated. At trial, Torsney's attorney pleaded his client not guilty by mental incapacity; the particular ailment, the attorney said, was something called "temporary psycho- motor epilepsy." The claim to the court was that while Torsney had never suffered an episode of the illness before, he had suddenly been struck with it that evening, resulting in his senseless assassination of the innocent teenager who had stood before him.

The jury somehow agreed with this preposterous scenario. Torsney was found not guilty by reason of insanity. The presentation by Torsney's attorney, Edward Rappaport, was hailed as brilliant, and, a few years later, the lawyer was himself elected to sit on Supreme Court in Brooklyn.

The story has stuck with every New Yorker who paid attention to such things back then. And hearing Taharka Robinson invoke Evans's name so many years later at the funeral of another teenager shot dead in questionable circumstances brought another reminder as the services ended and most people headed off to mark the approaching holiday. It had been Thanksgiving Day when Torsney fired his fatal round, another bullet that could never be taken back.

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