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Questions Persist in Shooting of Black Motorist by White Cops

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Howard Morgan will soon begin serving a 40-year sentence for attempted murder, but putting him behind bars will not conceal the truth of what happened the night he was pulled over by Chicago police.

Morgan, a black railroad detective and former Chicago police officer, was driving near his West Side home shortly after midnight in 2005 when four white officers discovered during a traffic stop that he was packing a pistol he used for his job.

Minutes later, the officers had shot Morgan 28 times, including through his liver, kidney, diaphragm, colon and six times in the back. Miraculously, he survived.

Two of the officers were also hit, one grazed by shrapnel and treated with a band aid, and another by a gunshot to the arm that did not require hospitalization.

The rest of what happened is disputed. Morgan testified that he was "snatched" from his van by the officers and searched, then heard "gun! gun!" before a hail of bullets left him unconscious. Morgan did not fire a single shot, he swore. The officers testified that they pulled over Morgan because he was heading the wrong way down a one-way street with his headlights off. Morgan exited his van in an "agitated" state and, when they discovered his gun, he shot first and they responded in self-defense.

Believing the police, the Cook County state's attorney's office charged Morgan with four counts of attempted murder and firearms offenses. He was acquitted of the firearms charges, but the jury hung on attempted murder, leading to a retrial and conviction earlier this year. On April 5, Judge Clayton Crane sentenced the 61-year-old Morgan to 40 years.

So who is telling the truth in this case -- Morgan or law enforcement? Unfortunately, an obstacle to answering is that much of the forensic evidence was inexplicably destroyed or not collected.

A three-judge appellate panel that reviewed the evidence in 2009 determined the following:

  • Morgan's van was crushed by police before it could be tested for prints, bullets and other evidence of the confrontation.
  • The bullets that hit the two officers were not recovered. Since the officers testified that they did not see Morgan fire those bullets and admitted they were constantly in each others line of fire, a jury could have reasonably concluded the officers were hit by "friendly fire." (Only three of the bullets that pierced Morgan's body were found - by his surgeon.)

One bullet, however, would become the centerpiece of the case against Morgan. The bullet was discovered at the hospital when it "fell" from the protective vest of another officer who had been at the scene, according to the appellate review. The officer would later claim that he saw Morgan fire the bullet, which must have lodged in the vest, he said. And a ballistics expert testified that the bullet could not have been shot by any of the officers' guns, eliminating friendly fire as its source.

But where did this bullet really come from? The ballistics expert was unable to match it to Morgan's gun, the appellate review found. And, remarkably, it was not jostled loose at the scene when the officer continued shooting and claimed he ran for cover. Nor did it fall from the vest when the officer probed to determine the extent of his injury. It also remained intact during the ride to the hospital.

Somehow, the bullet did not materialize until three witnesses suddenly saw it when the officer undressed at the hospital. As for the vest, police failed to inventory it and prosecutors were unable to produce it at the trial, Morgan's lawyers pointed out in a court filing.

A magic bullet, vanishing vest and crushed car? Like much of the evidence in the Morgan case, it wouldn't pass the smell test on CSI.

Other questions abound. Why would a former police officer with no criminal history or psychiatric problems suddenly begin shooting at four armed cops during a traffic stop? If the cops pulled over Morgan partly because he was driving with his headlights off, why did other officers later notice that the van's lights were on? If Morgan appeared "agitated" and left his van to confront the officers, why wasn't this mentioned in the official report of the incident? And, if race isn't an issue in this case, why did prosecutors use all their peremptory challenges to exclude people of color from the jury, as Morgan's lawyers have alleged in the court filing?

I don't know whether Howard Morgan is innocent, which he has steadfastly professed. But the official version of events simply doesn't make sense.

Undeterred by her husband's conviction, Rosalind Morgan and a band of supporters have asked Attorney General Eric Holder to launch a Justice Department probe of the case. Mrs. Morgan told me yesterday that Benjamin Crump, the lawyer for Trayvon Martin's family, has offered to "help in any way."

Although an explicit racial motive for the shooting may be difficult to prove by the feds, perhaps an independent prosecutor should be appointed in Cook County to thoroughly review the case -- just like in the David Koschman case involving former Mayor Daley's nephew, where vital evidence similarly vanished.

The citizens of Cook County deserve nothing less than an impartial and relentless search for the truth. That hasn't happened in the seven years since Howard Morgan lay bleeding on a West Side street.