BOSTON -- A New York grand jury in Westchester County earlier this year declined to indict Officer Aaron Hess in the shooting death of Danroy "DJ" Henry, a black college student from Easton Massachusetts. On October 17, 2010, Hess fired several bullets through the windshield of Henry's car after jumping on the hood in an effort to stop the vehicle. Why lethal force was used in a situation involving young men who were not involved in a crime remains the central question in the killing of DJ Henry. The other issue raised in this context is the role of race in Henry's death. It has become a defining concern in other police shootings as well, including the killing of a 68-year old man in Framingham, Massachusetts in January 2011. That case and the Henry shooting occurred under vastly different circumstances, but in each case the officer was white and the victim was black.
On October 17, 2010, at 1:19 a.m., the owner of a popular night spot in the small town of Mount Pleasant, N.Y., in an area called Thornwood called to report a disturbance. Within minutes of that call, a young Massachusetts man who had nothing to do with the disturbance itself was shot dead by a policeman, Officer Aaron Hess.
Mt. Pleasant Police Chief Louis Alagno held a press conference on October 18, 2010. He explained the scenario thus: "Officer Hess ended up on the hood of the vehicle as it accelerated in the fire lane. At some point in time Officer Hess drew his pistol and fired into the vehicle."
Within days, and before the official autopsy was released, someone within local law enforcement leaked a preliminary report that concluded that Henry had been impaired.
The Westchester County medical examiner's office found that Henry's blood-alcohol level was 0.13 percent. According to the New York State Police website, a driver is legally intoxicated if his or her blood alcohol concentration is 0.08 percent or greater.
Henry and his and family had started the night at a restaurant, and hours later he showed up at Finnegan's with friends.
"what does that have to do with an officer stepping into the aisle? It's not like he went after an officer in a car. He got shot and he happened to be under the influence of alcohol. That's not a crime," Ogletree said. "I think this is what we call a red herring."
Whether Henry was drunk and whether he accelerated the car, along with a host of other considerations, became key issues during a grand jury review that heard from 85 witnesses and resulted in no indictment. The police version of what happened stood, and the case was closed.
But many questions remained open, including the sensitive role of race and its impact on law enforcement. And not just in the case of Danroy Henry Jr.
THE MYSTERIOUS DEATH OF EURIE STAMPS
On January 4, 2011, Eurie Stamps of Framingham, MA., a 68-year-old retired MBTA worker, went shopping with his wife, Norma Bushfan-Stamps around twilight. They were in their bedroom watching a basketball game later that night -- but unbeknownst to them, the Framingham police were just outside conducting a drug stakeout. Around 12:00 a.m. on January 5, they spotted their primary suspect walking along the street with friends: Joseph Bushfan, 20, Stamps' stepson.
First the police apprehended Bushfan. Then they raided the house, forcing the couple and a 20-year-old cousin to the floor. Stamps was facedown when Officer Paul Duncan's semi-automatic rifle went off. Stamps was pronounced dead later that day.
Duncan said he tripped as he was attempting to handcuff Stamps. The Middlesex District Attorney investigation determined it was an accident.
Lawyer Anthony Tarricone, who represented both the Bushfan and Stamp families, didn't buy it.
"The story, frankly, has a patina of implausibility," Tarricone said. "There are many unanswered questions. But here, according to the district attorney's investigation, a member of this elite, trained SWAT team's gun was discharged and shot Mr. Stamps when he was on the ground, face down, and [Duncan] stumbled and fell. It just doesn't make any sense."
Middlesex District Attorney Gerard Leone conducted the criminal investigation of the case. He told WGBH that it was thorough and included numerous indirect and eyewitness interviews. He emphasized, however, that the investigation only covered criminal offenses.
"We look at whether negligence occurred, whether there was recklessness, but we do so in the context of whether a crime was committed. That's not to say that there may not be breaches of protocol, of policy -- of things that might even amount to be civil negligence."
Ogletree said he knew Stamps, whom he described as a "gentle giant, a wonderful man. . . . It's a tragedy beyond measure." He was convinced that race played a role in both the Eurie Stamps and the DJ Henry cases.
THE ROLE OF RACE
But others directly involved in both cases are not as sure. Stamps' best friend, Dennis Dotten of Cambridge, said, "It may have had something to do with the fact that Eurie was a big guy. He's a big black man. They may have been intimidated by his size."
DJ Henry's mother, Angella, said, "I can't really speculate. I really don't know. I believe race plays a part, but I can't say for sure what Aaron Hess' motives were."
Brandon Cox's mother, Boston teacher Donna Parks, was asked if she thought race played a role in the shooting of DJ Henry. "Initially I don't think it did," she said. But she wondered about the response of Hess after the shooting, when people approached the officer and asked to help Henry: "The police officer said, 'They're just thugs.' . . . What would make him think that he was a thug?"
Ogletree, who has written several books on racial profiling, was adamant that it is a race issue. "DJ Henry is important because there is a history of racial profiling against black and Latino men. And DJ Henry is a classic case," he said.
He compared the situation to that of Jamal Johnson.
"If he were Jamal Johnson, who had a record for drugs, who had been locked up before, no one would have heard about this case. But he's DJ Henry. The families are like the Huxtables in 'The Cosby Show.' And the reality is we shouldn't let it happen to Jamal and we certainly are not going to let it happen to DJ Henry and not be addressed."
The families of Henry and Cox have turned to the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division to seek injunctive relief against the Westchester County Police. They have made a demand for training that focuses as much on race relations as on the proper uses of firearms and deadly force. We will have more on that in part three of our series.
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