News & Politics

D.A.’s Turf War Stalls Probe Into Police Shooting of an Unarmed Black Man

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On the morning of April 17, 2016, Sergeant Randall French of the Troy, New York, police department fired eight rounds into the body of a 37-year-old black man named Edson Thevenin. French said he had pulled Thevenin over for suspected drunk driving, after which Thevenin led him on a high-speed chase. It ended with French pinned against the front of Thevenin’s car — at which point French opened fire.

The following day, Chief John Tedesco of the Troy Police Department slouched up to the podium at a press conference, ready to explain what had happened. With him were Troy mayor Patrick Madden and the Rensselaer County district attorney, Joel Abelove. All three were in agreement: French followed textbook procedure. Four days later, a grand jury decided not to indict French.

But the story of the shooting of Edson Thevenin was far from over. The previous July, in response to the wave of high-profile police-involved killings across the nation, Governor Andrew Cuomo had issued Executive Order No. 147, which instructed the state attorney general’s office to investigate and prosecute instances where a police officer has killed a civilian and there is a “significant question as to whether the civilian was armed and dangerous at the time of his or her death.” The attorney general would ultimately be able to supersede a local district attorney’s jurisdiction and bring their own charges.

More than fifteen months after Thevenin’s death, however, the investigation has hardly begun, thanks to a pitched battle between the Rensselaer D.A. and Attorney General Eric Schneiderman over who has jurisdiction. Abelove now faces removal from office and potential criminal charges over the showdown, but Thevenin’s family is no closer to finding out what really happened on that fateful night.

“To shoot someone eight times…you’re not trying to stop somebody in their car, you’re trying to murder them,” says pastor Tre’ Staton of the Empire Christian Center, the Thevenin family church. “And with Abelove, there are some things that man did in this case that attorneys just don’t do, let alone district attorneys. But he did them, and we’re left wondering, why?”

A father of two living in Watervliet, across the Hudson from Troy, Edson Thevenin worked as a mechanic at Enterprise Rental and dreamed of one day having his own shop. But more than cars, Thevenin’s focus was his family.

“He was my backbone,” says Thevenin’s mother, Gertha. “When I divorced his father when he was ten, he literally took the role as man of the household, mentoring his younger brother, pushing him to be better.”

That April morning, Thevenin was returning home after celebrating his younger brother’s birthday in Troy when French pulled him over. According to French, Thevenin had stepped out to perform a sobriety test when he suddenly turned and jumped back into his car. French then pepper-sprayed him and tried to grab Thevenin’s keys out of the ignition. Thevenin floored it and dragged French for a short distance — “He tried to run me over,” the officer told his dispatcher — after which French jumped back into his patrol car.

The two were racing for the Collar City Bridge when, French alleged, Thevenin made a haphazard U-turn and crashed into the median, where French and another patrol officer, Captain Matthew Montanino, boxed in Thevenin’s car with theirs. French later recounted that he exited his car and drew his weapon, shouting at Thevenin to stop, but, French said, Thevenin instead backed up, hitting Montanino’s car, then drove forward, pinning French’s legs against his own car. French then fired his weapon eight times at Thevenin’s windshield. Four of those bullets ripped through Thevenin’s head, the others through his torso; he was pronounced dead on arrival at St. Mary’s Hospital, and then his body was transferred to Albany Medical for an autopsy.

Late in the morning, a detective from the Troy Police Department came to Gertha’s home. “He asked me if someone had stolen my car. Then he said that Edson had been involved in a car accident,” Gertha recalls. “We kept getting the runaround — he’s in this place, he’s in that place — Albany for autopsy, St. Mary’s; didn’t matter, they wouldn’t let us see him.” She and her family were turned away from both the police station and the shooting scene, she says. “It was very aggravating, not knowing anything. That was more hurtful than anything else.”

Already on the scene was Paul Clyne, the state assistant attorney general, there to determine whether his boss, Schneiderman, would exercise jurisdiction over the case using Cuomo’s executive order. Schneiderman had already intervened in four other cases across the state under the order, and the early facts of this shooting pointed toward its being the fifth.

After some initial confusion — Abelove told the press pool the next day that the attorney general wouldn’t be getting involved, only to be immediately contradicted by his own police chief — the attorney general’s office hand-delivered a letter to Abelove requesting copies of the investigative files, including police radio transmissions, medical reports, witness statements, and any videos collected.

Abelove was no fan of Executive Order 147. In August 2015, he wrote in an op-ed in the Albany Times Union, “What does ‘armed’ even mean? A gun? A knife? A brick? A glass bottle? How is that determination made? If the civilian dies months after the confrontation with law enforcement, does the district attorney turn the case over to the attorney general? No one knows.” Though Thevenin was unarmed, Abelove argued that he was using his car as a weapon — meaning that in order to take over the case, Schneiderman’s office would have to show that the driver didn’t mean to hit French.

Recently installed traffic cameras at the scene — around the base of the Collar City Bridge, one of the busiest intersections in the region — were not in operation yet, and neither the police cruisers nor the actual officers were fitted with cameras. Two witnesses came forward: Philip E. Gross III, the owner of an auto repair shop, who said he saw the whole event unfold; and Keith Millington, a Cohoes man who had just recently taken a civil service exam for the Troy PD. According to a Times Union report, Millington told the attorney general’s office that French opened fire on Thevenin before the officer was even pinned by Thevenin’s car, which had rolled forward only after French shot and killed Thevenin — a direct contradiction of French’s account. Millington’s reported testimony, and a reported cellphone video he shot that confirms his account — which a local defense attorney claimed in court to have viewed — have become legendary around the city of Troy. (Neither Gross nor Millington was willing to be interviewed by the Voice.)

On Friday, April 22, after three days of gathering evidence and conducting interviews, Abelove convened a grand jury hearing — something Executive Order 147 doesn’t allow while an attorney general’s investigation is under way. Six witnesses were called from the Troy Police Department — including French and Montanino — but neither Gross nor Millington was called to testify or had his statement reviewed. (None of Thevenin’s family members were called to testify either.) The autopsy report for Thevenin, meanwhile, was still pending, meaning jurors couldn’t be informed as to whether Thevenin was intoxicated at the time of his death, as French alleged. Most surprisingly, Abelove did not ask French to waive his Fifth Amendment right to immunity for his testimony, making any eventual prosecution nearly impossible.

After a few hours of testimony from the officers, the result was no surprise: Charges would not be brought against Sergeant Randall French for the shooting death of Edson Thevenin.

Gertha was shocked at how quickly everything had moved. “My first thought when the grand jury decided not to bring charges was that there was a cover-up,” she says. “Something didn’t sit right with me that day. Everything happened too fast.”

The following Wednesday, April 27, Schneiderman sued Abelove in Albany County Supreme Court, charging that the D.A. had “flagrantly violated” Cuomo’s Executive Order 147 by presenting the case to the grand jury. Schneiderman demanded that Abelove be ordered to turn over his files and all evidence to the attorney general’s office, that he be restricted from taking any further action in the case, and that the grand jury action be annulled.

Abelove eventually agreed to a settlement with Schneiderman: He would turn over his investigative files, including grand jury records, and would “take no further action to investigate and/or prosecute any matter related to the incident.” But the third prong of Schneiderman’s original petition — to annul the grand jury hearing — had been ignored. The grand jury’s decision not to indict French stood.

Nearly a year later, Abelove found himself back on the hot seat. While he was walking to his office one snowy morning, five investigators with the attorney general’s office pounced on him with a search warrant. Surveillance video shows that one of the investigators took Abelove’s phone right out of his hand.

The previous month, Cuomo had granted Schneiderman the authority to investigate Abelove’s handling of the Thevenin case. If any wrongdoing was found, Abelove could be removed from office under a rarely invoked provision of the New York State constitution. He could also face criminal charges.

Abelove’s camp fired back that Schneiderman had overstepped his bounds with the search warrant, which he obtained by approaching State Supreme Court Justice Richard McNally, who had defeated Abelove for county D.A. in 2011 before resigning to take the judgeship in 2013. Abelove then filed suit against Cuomo’s Executive Order 147 itself — a move that the statewide District Attorneys Association quickly voted not to support.

Some of Abelove’s colleagues and other lawyers around Troy say the fact that Abelove pushed the Thevenin case so quickly through a grand jury essentially proved the need for the executive order in the first place. “[Abelove] proved the governor’s contention, didn’t he?” says Schenectady County D.A. Robert Carney. “He did something that no district attorney should ever do — immunize the target to an investigation and then claim he can’t prosecute.”

Meanwhile, over a year after Schneiderman launched his investigation, there has been little progress in finding out what really happened. Schneiderman did retain a private forensic specialist to examine Thevenin’s car and determine the angle of the shots that pierced the windshield. Thevenin’s autopsy report was eventually completed — and immediately sealed by the attorney general’s office, which has still released no official report.

Thevenin’s widow, Cinthia, and his mother, Gertha, have filed two lawsuits against the city, claiming civil rights violations and wrongful death. As Gertha watches Abelove, Schneiderman, and Cuomo duke it out over jurisdiction, executive orders, and protocol, she is left in the dark, the investigation of her son’s death essentially at a standstill.

“There’s no way to have closure until you get answers,” Gertha tells me. “Until I get some definite answer of what happened that morning, my version will continue to play in my mind every day.”

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