Six months ago, on the day a Bronx grand jury refused to file felony charges against a white police officer for shooting her unarmed 16-year-old son, Dante, Sharon Johnson sat in the office of Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson wringing her hands. She was listening in disbelief as the bumbling prosecutor added another of his shameful contributions to one of the saddest chapters in the history of New York’s modern civil rights movement. Johnson was telling the mother what she’d already learned from news leaks: The grand jury had looked at the facts, listened to the witnesses, and determined that the May 26, 1999 shooting of Dante was not intentional.
The meaningful facts surrounding such controversial shootings all too often seem lost on the stolid Johnson, who, tethered to the reins of his own political survival, apparently brushes aside the impact a cop’s bullet wields on a once promising future. In this case, the “criminal negligence” of Officer Mark Conway painted an indelible portrait of a victim’s helplessness.
“Dante’s got a scar from the top part of his chest all the way down past his navel,” Sharon Johnson says of her son, who was shot once in the left side of his lower abdomen. “He has scars all over his neck. He can’t take off any kind of clothing for anybody to see this—you would be in shock, you’d want to turn your face away. His legs are totally messed up. I’m not just talking about scars from stitches. They had to cut pieces of the muscles because they had decayed. Muscles don’t grow back, so chunks of his legs are missing—both legs, inside and outside. I am trying to talk to him about positive things and [he is concerned about the fact that] he can’t play ball. I said, ‘Maybe you can coach ball.’ And he is a skinny person. He said, ‘Look at my arms; my arms are bigger than my legs.’ He cannot lift up his foot to walk like you and I do.”
Dante, she adds, “stays angry” about the outcome of the investigation into the shooting. “Sometimes he even gets angry with me,” she cries. “[In the past] if anything was wrong I was able to fix it or help him. [Now] here I am, completely helpless. Either he can’t wear shorts in the summer or the braces are too tight rubbing into his foot if he walks a little distance. He is feeling pain and he wants answers, and I can’t give him any. I thought that if he sees the cop being indicted, that would bring some closure and help with the nightmares and everything. But that is not so.”
Last week, as Dante Johnson battled his nightmares, Mayor Rudy Giuliani reignited bad feelings. In a meeting with U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno and federal prosecutors from Brooklyn at the Justice Department in Washington, D.C., Giuliani tried to drive another nail in the coffin of the anti-police-brutality movement—hoping to bury charges that the cop who shot and critically injured Johnson, the cop who blew Patrick Dorismond away at close range, and the cops who gunned down Amadou Diallo in a hail of 41 bullets had targeted the victims because of their race. (All of the officers involved in those questionable shootings were acquitted or cleared of more serious charges by juries.) The disgraced Republican mayor has been blocking a civil rights lawsuit accusing the city of failing to discipline brutal cops. Reno sat through irksome exhibits of Giuliani’s dubious charts and statistics, which he uses to defend the New York Police Department against charges of racial profiling.
Some black militants argue that if Reno had the guts some of her defenders insist she has, she would have the FBI arrest Giuliani for inciting the police shootings, beatings, and criminalizing of his African American constituents. Reno’s patience with Giuliani’s stalling tactics, they assert, should have run out by now. Recalling the lightning predawn raid to free Elián González, some black activists began to imagine the FBI breaking and entering No. 7 World Trade Center (where they envision Giuliani would hide out to run his outlaw mayoralty in the event Reno appoints a federal monitor over the rogue NYPD) and snatching the “law and order” mayor from his high-tech bunker. But such fantasies about charging Giuliani with “war crimes” have been shattered by the unnerving reality that his political influence may extend further than they thought. Indeed, the “very attentive and very conscientious” Janet Reno, as Giuliani described her after the meeting, is in no rush to embarrass the mayor.
The activists and other civil libertarians charge that the political pressure exerted on Giuliani would be different had the victims of police misbehavior been mostly whites or Jews. Black blood is cheap, they contend, and if African Americans ever needed Reno it is now. Under Giuliani, the activists point out, the anti-police-brutality movement has been on the losing end in the highest-profile cases. They claim that since wresting the mayoralty from David Dinkins in 1992, Giuliani—who is fighting to salvage his tarnished legacy—consistently has encouraged police abuse of people of color.
Two months ago, even as African Americans were beginning to express compassion for Giuliani because of his battle with prostate cancer, the mayor was setting them up to be victims of racial profiling. During a City Hall news conference in which he blasted a probe by the U.S. attorney in Manhattan—which found that the NYPD’s Street Crime Unit had engaged in racial profiling while conducting random street searches—Giuliani declared that if police were searching for a hypothetical black suspect, as many as two in every five black men questioned could be arrested for some other crime.
In Giuliani’s example of a hypothetical search for a black rape suspect, police are searching the Upper West Side for a male the mayor described as a “six-foot-two African American, roughly 35 years old.” He added: “What is going to happen in order to find that person is a lot of people are going to be approached. You are going to have to search for people, you are going to have to interview people, you are going to have to ask them questions. When you approach some of them to ask questions, you may be frightened about the fact that maybe they have a gun, maybe they don’t have a gun. So you frisk them. Sometimes you do find a gun. In the course of looking for that one rapist, you may arrest 30, 40 people. You may approach 100 people. But who are you going to be focusing on? You are not going to be focusing on a 70-year-old white male—if in fact the report is that the rapist is a 35-year-old African American male. And that happens in large percentages, and that is what drives what’s been going on.”
Janet Reno certainly must be aware that Giuliani’s comments contradict the NYPD’s own statistics. In 1998, the Street Crime Unit made 45,000 stop-and-frisk searches—although 35,000 of those stops, or about 78 percent, did not result in arrests. About 90 percent of those stopped were blacks and Latinos, and the conviction rate of those arrested by the Street Crime Unit has not been a factor in Giuliani’s slide shows. Even when given the chance to clarify his remarks later, the mayor stood by his numbers, saying that the arrests of black men would not necessarily be for the hypothetical rape, but for a variety of criminal activity, much of which falls under what the mayor calls “quality of life” offenses—for example, drug possession, graffiti, or outstanding warrants.
In addition to considering whether to seize control of the NYPD, Reno, some activists have suggested, should launch a far-reaching probe into the offices of the city’s most controversial district attorneys. This investigation would focus on how Bronx D.A. Johnson, Manhattan D.A. Robert Morgenthau, and Brooklyn D.A. Charles Hynes—in the face of overwhelming evidence—conducted flawed investigations that led to the exoneration of police officers in such cases as the maiming of Dante Johnson and the slayings of Amadou Diallo, Malcolm Ferguson, Patrick Dorismond, and Patrick Bailey, who was shot to death by one of the cops who later killed Diallo.
The federal overhaul must begin with Johnson, who wound up losing the Diallo case—the most notorious allegation of police brutality in the city’s criminal justice history, activists say. Subsequently, after what he calls “a thorough and exhaustive investigation,” Johnson refused to file criminal charges against Officer Louis Rivera, who shot and killed Ferguson on March 1 in the stairwell of a Bronx apartment building. Ferguson, an alleged drug dealer, was gunned down just days after protesting the acquittals in the Diallo shooting. “One does not struggle to elect a black D.A. for cops to feel they can go to that borough and not worry about being prosecuted,” says Reverend Al Sharpton, perhaps Johnson’s most vocal critic. “We expect a black D.A. not to break rules in our favor but we also expect him not to break rules against us either.”
Sharpton accused Johnson of blowing the Diallo case after Johnson allegedly elected to exclude racial profiling and other “obvious factors” as part of his trial strategy. These factors, he contended, might have led to the conviction of the four white officers who killed the West African immigrant. “Bob Johnson is quickly becoming a symbol of black betrayal in this city,” declares the civil rights leader. “He should be trying to be even more aggressive to show the community that he is not giving police a pass.”
After Johnson, Reno should immediately focus on D.A. Morgenthau’s office, one with a deplorable record of prosecuting brutal cops. In July, an announcement by the aging criminal justice czar that undercover cop Anthony Vasquez would not face criminal charges in the killing of Dorismond intensified anger, disgust, and fear in the African American community. On March 16, Vasquez shot the 26-year-old Haitian immigrant in the chest during a scuffle after Dorismond rebuffed Vasquez’s request for drugs during an entrapment sweep. Dorismond was a security guard, did not carry a gun, and never dealt drugs. Asked whether the black victim of a police shooting could receive justice from a grand jury, Morgenthau replied that the “racially mixed” panel “took its duties seriously and reached a fair result.”
Morgenthau allegedly gave a “pass” to Officer Craig Yokemick in the case some activists now refer to as “Robbing Banks.” Last year, a Manhattan grand jury found that Yokemick, the white cop who hurled his police radio like a football at Kenneth Banks while the young man was fleeing on his bicycle, had used justifiable force and should not be charged in Banks’s death. The incident occurred on October 29, 1998, after cops alleged that they had seen Banks participate in a drug transaction.
As for Brooklyn D.A. Charles Hynes, Reno does not have to look far. According to civil rights activist Charles Barron, he is the prosecutor with the worst record of all when it comes to giving cops passes in instances of alleged brutality, In fact, Barron accused Hynes of contributing to the death of Amadou Diallo, arguing that had Hynes prosecuted Officer Kenneth Boss for the 1997 fatal shooting of Patrick Bailey, Diallo would be alive. Last year, Hynes declined to prosecute Boss in the Bailey slaying, saying “there is no credible view of the evidence which would support criminal charges.”
According to a report by Hynes’s office, the incident began when Bailey, 22, pointed a sawed-off shotgun at another man during a dispute outside a Halloween party. When uniformed officers arrived and ordered Bailey to stop, he fled into his house. Boss chased Bailey into a stairwell, where, the report claims, Bailey turned and pointed the gun at him. The officer fired his pistol three times, striking Bailey in the thigh and buttocks. Bailey died at a hospital after hemorrhaging blood. Police recovered the shotgun, which was unloaded and inoperable. Barron maintains that the shotgun was not Bailey’s and that the victim was unarmed when Boss shot him. In July, in a $155 million wrongful-death lawsuit brought by the family, a federal jury found that Boss, another officer, and the city were not liable.
D.A. Robert Johnson had requested that Sharon Johnson have her son present in his office on the afternoon of June 9 when he delivered the bad news. “It’s a good thing Dante didn’t go over there,” she recalls. “I knew a lot of crazy things have been going on, and as far as justice goes, blacks didn’t seem to be getting any. I expected him to tell me that based on the information that they had that this cop was going to be indicted on a decent charge.” Instead of charging Officer Conway, 33, with a felony, the grand jury slapped the 14-year veteran on the wrist with one misdemeanor count of third-degree assault. Conway was a member of the Street Crime Unit, the plainclothes force that patrolled so-called high-crime areas looking for illegal guns.
This, according to police and prosecutors, is what happened: At about 12:20 a.m. on May 26 last year, Conway, who was in uniform at the time, as well as two other cops, Sergeant Terrence O’Toole and Officer Michael Fraterrigo, were in an unmarked car on routine patrol in the Morris Heights neighborhood. They approached Johnson and a friend for questioning in connection with a string of robberies. When O’Toole and Fraterrigo got out of the car, the teens fled. The two cops caught Johnson’s friend on the overpass of the Major Deegan Expressway. Conway chased Johnson in the car. According to a statement released by the D.A.’s office, “Conway pulled alongside Johnson, reached outside his moving vehicle and grabbed the sleeve of the boy’s jacket. The gun discharged as the fleeing youth struggled to get away.”
In Sharon Johnson’s June meeting with the Bronx D.A., she and her attorney, Sanford Rubenstein, pressed the prosecutor for explanations that he seemed hesitant to give. According to Dante’s mother, Johnson said that he did not pursue stiffer charges against Conway because of his failed strategy in the Diallo case. “He said that they [filed] many charges [in the Diallo case] but most of them were thrown out and he did not want to look stupid,” she says. “I was rather upset. This was a different case.” She adds that Johnson tried to convince her that although the grand jury had viewed what happened to her son as an accident, the panel still held Conway responsible.
“No, no, it does not work like that,” she remembers telling the prosecutor. “I served 30 days on a grand jury, right across the street. It depends on what you present to us.”
She recalls the following exchange:
“I am not going to try to influence the grand jury,” Johnson responded.
“That’s what you come in there to do,” asserted the mother who heard some 200 cases during her grand jury service. “That’s what prosecutors do every day. They come in and present cases to us, trying to influence us with whatever information [is necessary] for us to make an informed decision. If you come in and ask for two misdemeanor charges and we give you one—that’s what you asked for. We say, ‘Okay, you don’t believe you have a strong case; that’s what you’re gonna get.’ So don’t put that on the jury.”
“I don’t believe that the cop intentionally did the shooting,” Johnson reiterated. Sharon expressed outrage at the prosecutor’s stubbornness.
“It’s an open window,” she said, referring to the unmarked car in which Conway pursued her son. “He has to raise his hand. If the gun accidentally went off, the bullet had to hit something, the steering wheel, his lap, his elbow, something,” added Sharon, a former soldier and computer technician who was training to be a police officer when Motorola lured her away. “You pull a gun, [aim] it through a window, and you tell me that you did not intend to shoot?” She described Johnson as “rather stunned” by her argument.
“It doesn’t make sense going back and forth about this,” Johnson said.
“So in your opinion, this is the best you can do?” she asked.
“Yes,” Johnson replied.
Sharon Johnson, Rubenstein, and Reverend Herbert Daughtry, who had joined them as an adviser, went to a nearby room where they consulted before facing a throng of reporters. “I was in shock,” Sharon says. “I think that he is weak. I think that the people in the Bronx need to know that you cannot take a case to this man and expect him to be fair about it.” At the news conference, she again appealed to the prosecutor to rely on his common sense. “How can a cop pull a gun with one hand, aim it at a person, hold on to that person while driving a car, drive, and pull the trigger?” she pleaded. “Mr. Johnson, I need an explanation. My son needs an explanation. The city needs an explanation.”
Additional reporting by Amanda Ward
Bronx D.A. Responds
“District Attorney Robert Johnson has never hesitated prosecuting anyone where there is evidence that a crime has been committed. Since 1995, charges alleging the use of excessive force while on duty have been filed against 20 police officers. Allegations of wrongdoing not involving excessive force have resulted in charges being filed against eight other police officers.
“It is inappropriate for a district attorney to seek to influence a grand jury. The role of the D.A. is to serve as legal adviser to the grand jury and to instruct the panel on the law and the available evidence. [In the case of Dante Johnson], we submitted for the grand jury’s consideration a felony charge of assault in the second degree, reckless assault. The panel, however, filed a lesser charge of assault in the third degree. We did not charge an intentional shooting because the forensic evidence did not bear that out.” —Steve Reed, spokesman