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David Protess Headshot

The 29th Bullet Won't End Police Shooting Controversy

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When four white Chicago police officers shot a black railroad detective 28 times -- mostly in the back of his body -- it appeared that we would only learn what happened from statements by the cops. Their version: the man who was shot pulled a gun following a traffic stop and opened fire, requiring them to shoot in self-defense.

But the man, Howard Morgan, miraculously survived to tell a different story. A former Chicago cop, Morgan was pulled over for driving the wrong way on a one-way street near his home at 12:45 a.m. on February 21, 2005. Morgan said he was ordered out of his car and searched. Spotting Morgan's holstered weapon, which he carried for his job at the railroad, a rookie officer shouted, "Gun!" At that point, according to Morgan, he became target practice and could not have returned fire.

Even though Morgan's account was supported by an independent witness, the Cook County State's Attorney's Office charged him with aggravated battery, discharging a firearm, and attempted murder. A jury in 2007 acquitted Morgan of all charges except the most serious -- four counts of attempted murder -- on which they deadlocked. That led to a retrial earlier this year, when another jury convicted Morgan of attempted murder.

Yesterday, Judge Clayton Crane fired the 29th bullet in this case. He sentenced Morgan to 40 years -- surely a death sentence for the 61-year-old Morgan, whose health has suffered decidedly since his body was riddled with lead.

Now what? Judge Crane can put Morgan behind bars, but his incarceration can't conceal the deeply disturbing questions that linger. Here are just a few.

Why would a former cop open fire at four armed officers, knowing it would not end well?

Why wasn't a gunshot residue test done of Morgan's hands? If he actually did discharge his weapon, as the authorities contend, wouldn't this simple test have confirmed their version of events?

Why was Morgan's car destroyed before forensic testing could be conducted, including of the bullets that pierced it?

Why were only three bullets preserved from the dozens of rounds fired, as Morgan's advocates claim? Under the circumstances, how do we know whether any of the remaining bullets that hit Morgan were fired from his own weapon by police?

Beyond these unresolved questions about Morgan's guilt, there are two more troubling issues that arise from this case.

Why was Morgan shot 21 times while his back was turned? Weren't seven direct hits to his front torso enough to subdue him?

And, was race a factor in the shooting?

The first question goes to the issue of who is truly responsible for attempted murder -- Morgan or the cops who repeatedly shot him?

The second compels us to ask: Would the case have been handled differently if the four officers were black West Siders and the shooting victim was a white Gold Coast resident?

Civil rights leaders, Occupy Chicago, a prominent newspaper columnist and Morgan's family are rightly demanding answers. Thousands have signed an on-line petition by Change.org seeking Morgan's release.

Twenty-eight bullets weren't enough to kill Howard Morgan. Yesterday's sentence won't be enough to kill the truth.