Grand Jury's Out
Ever since a Brooklyn police officer fatally shot her unarmed son in the back nine years ago, Milta Calderon has demonstrated outside the Brooklyn district attorney's office, even getting arrested once during a sit-in. Calderon, 51, was back at it again on a cold February afternoon for the family of Timothy Stansbury Jr., the unarmed black teen shot dead in January by a startled white police officer on a Brooklyn rooftop.
The teen's family expected an indictment, but Calderon had a special warning for them about the D.A. "Charles Hynes does not indict cops," she told Stansbury's dad.
Indeed, at least 10 times in recent years, Brooklyn police officers have faced no criminal charges for fatally shooting young people who were either unarmed or carrying items that cops misperceived as threatening.
Calderon's own son, 21-year-old Anibal Carrasquillo, died like Stansbury in the darkness of a cold January night. An officer thought the unarmed Carrasquillo had pulled a gun while running away after allegedly peering into parked cars. The officer fired, killing Carrasquillo with a shot to his back. A grand jury cleared the cop.
At a rally outside of Hynes's office in February, Calderon urged Stansbury's father to go straight to federal prosecutors. But Timothy Stansbury Sr., 45, believed that the grand jury called by Hynes would bring housing cop Richard Neri to trial for his fatal blunder. After all, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly had quickly said the shooting appeared unjustified. Stansbury, 19, had never had any trouble with the law, and was taking a shortcut with friends across the roof of the Louis Armstrong Houses in Bedford-Stuyvesant when they came upon Neri and another officer at a doorway.
As wrong as Stansbury's shooting looked, Calderon was right. There was no indictment.
Instead, the grand jury process has brought anguish to the Stansbury family and a despairing conviction by them and black leaders that cops can kill African Americans and other minorities with impunity. The case has also put pressure on Hynes, sparking charges that his office bungled the grand jury presentation and behaves too deferentially toward police officers.
"Every time a black person gets killed, a black child gets killed, it was an accident?" Stansbury Sr. wondered. "Then they let the cop walk. I don't understand."
Stansbury joins a long line of parents who buried kids and watched an officer go free. Unarmed robbery suspect Jose Luis Lebron, 14, was fatally shot in the back of the head while running from police in Bushwick on January 31, 1990. One grand jury called by Hynes indicted an officer for manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide, but a judge later threw out the charges. A second grand jury failed to indict.
A grand jury cleared four police officers in the January 11, 1994, shooting of unarmed 17-year-old Shu'aib Abdul Latif in a dark East New York basement. Officers were responding to a complaint about a man with a gun. Latif, son of a Bedford-Stuyvesant imam, allegedly tried to run, struggled with one officer, and was shot by him and several other cops.
On September 27, 1994, 13-year-old Nicholas Heyward Jr. was shot dead in the Gowanus Houses by a cop who thought the black kid's toy gun was real. The case wasn't presented to a grand jury because, as in many of these shootings, police can fire if they think they or others face deadly force.
Two months after the Carrasquillo case, in March 1995, a police officer shot 16-year-old honor student Yong Xin Huang behind his left ear in Sheepshead Bay after the teen was caught playing with a pellet gun. Hynes said the grand jury believed Huang had the pellet gun in his hand and was struggling with an officer whose weapon accidentally went off at close range.
A cop killed eighth-grader Frankie Arzuaga, 15, on January 12, 1996, as he sat in the backseat of a stolen car in Williamsburg that refused to halt for officers. The moving car was dragging a police officer when his partner fired, striking Arzuaga in the head. Hynes did not present the case to a grand jury.
Six months later, two plainclothes officers unleashed 24 bullets at an unarmed black man sitting in a stolen car parked in Flatbush. A grand jury cleared the two cops, who thought 23-year-old Aswan Watson was reaching for a gun when he was picking up a steering wheel lock under the car's seat. The panel did release a report criticizing the officers' tactics and training.
On Christmas Day 1997, a black man was gunned down in Canarsie by a police officer later cleared by a grand jury. The victim, 22-year-old William Whitfield, was mistaken for a fleeing rooftop sniper when shot inside a grocery store.
A grand jury failed to indict the group of officers who let loose pepper spray, then a dozen bullets, at emotionally disturbed Gidone Busch, 31, outside his Borough Park apartment on August 30, 1999. Police said the 159-pound, six-foot-three Busch was holding a hammer in a threatening manner, which his mother denies. She faulted Hynes's office for sticking to evidence favorable to the officers. "They presented a false picture of Gidone being closer to the officers than he was, and no testimony that the pepper spray had the effects of temporary blindness and he couldn't see and didn't have his glasses on," said Doris Busch Boskey, 66.
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."
It's hard telling that to a mother or father who has lost a child to an officer's mistake. Milta Calderon said she ended up accepting a $265,000 civil settlement from the city for Anibal's death. But it still galls her that her unarmed son was shot in the back. At the time, Hynes said he met with Calderon and kept his promise to insure "full and complete investigations and presentations of evidence to a grand jury."
"I had a meeting with Charles Hynes. He didn't want to hear me," Calderon said. "He got highly upset. I was saying to him, how could you say the cop's life was threatened when my son was shot in the back?"
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