On Oct. 17 2010, police officers in the town of Mount Pleasant, New York, shot and killed Easton resident Danroy “DJ” Henry, age 20, outside a bar at a shopping center in that town, not far from New York City. Henry was at the bar with friends, after attending a football game between Pace University (where he attended college,) and Stonehill College. Police alleged that officers shot Henry after he struck police officers with his car. Other witnesses disputed this account, saying that Henry was only moving his car at the request of police, when they suddenly jumped on the hood of the car and shot him through the windshield. Immediately Henry’s death, his family disputed the police Department version of events, and called for an immediate investigation.
The mother of one of Henry’s friends who was in the car and who was also shot and wounded in the incident, disputed the police account in an interview with CNN shortly after the shooting. Donna Parks said that Henry and others in the car were waiting for a friend to come out of the establishment “when a police officer banged … on the window.” In response, she said that Henry began driving after her son, Brandon Cox, told Henry that he thought police wanted him to move his car. “Another police officer with his gun drawn just ran out in front of DJ’s car,” as he was moving it, said Parks, who insisted that Henry had no time to stop. Parks has also told CNN that after police shot Henry multiple times, they “pulled him out of the car, handcuffed him, put him face down on the ground and left him there for 15 to 20 minutes.”
Amidst calls for an investigation, shortly after Henry’s death, the Westchester, New York District Attorney’s Office commenced a grand jury inquiry of the incident. Yesterday, that office announced that, “after due deliberation on the evidence presented in this matter, the grand jury found that there was no reasonable cause to vote an indictment.”
What is a grand jury and what does this mean? A grand jury is intended to be part of our government’s system of checks and balances, designed to protect against abuses of governmental power. A grand jury is comprised of typically 16-23 persons, who hear evidence presented by the government in its attempt to seek an indictment of a person (or corporation.) An indictment is a formal charge that someone has committed a felony-level offense. The system is supposed to require a prosecutor to first convince the grand jury, (in theory an impartial panel of ordinary citizens,) that there exists reasonable suspicion, or probable cause, that a crime – usually a felony – has been committed. Witnesses can be required to appear and testify before a grand jury, which may sit for several weeks at a time. Unlike a trial, the grand jury’s proceedings are secret; neither the subject of the grand jury proceedings, nor his attorney, is generally present for witness testimony. In what surprises most people, a judge is usually not present either. After hearing the prosecutor’s evidence, the grand jury returns either a “true bill” (meaning that a prosecution will go forward), or “no true bill” (meaning the case is dismissed.) Typically, 12 members of the grand jury must vote to indict, for the case to proceed to formal charges and a trial.
A lot of people view this grand jury’s findings very confusing, to put it mildly. Not the least of these parties is the U.S. Department of Justice, who immediately following the grand jury’s report, announced that they were launching their own, independent inquiry into this killing. The purpose of the investigation will be to determine if police officers committed any violations of Henry’s federal civil rights. Additionally, U.S Senator Scott Brown has called for a complete investigation of this shooting death.
The reason for all this apparent doubt: Why would someone who was not committing a crime, who was not hiding any contraband, and who had no reason to attack police, deliberately try to ram them with his car? Henry did not have a violent history. It strikes several observers that this District Attorney might have been presenting an intentionally weak case to the grand jury, to “cover” for members of the Police Department involved here. Why this theory? District Attorneys’ offices and Police Departments are professional partners; they are essentially co-workers. They interface with each other and cooperate with each other, to prosecute crimes. To ask a District Attorney to objectively and impartially present evidence to a grand jury in a case like this, strikes some observers as the fox guarding he chicken coop. To quote the young victim’s father, Danroy Henry, Sr., “This process is most analogous to a person committing a crime which their siblings investigate and for which their closest relatives determine their punishment.” The family’s New York civil rights lawyer, Michael Sussman, has openly questioned the impartiality of the District Attorney, who works closely with local police, stating that the grand jury process is heavily weighted toward the prosecution and alleging that if prosecutors were truly seeking indictments in this case, those indictments would have been returned. In making his point, Sussman quoted a famous 1985 New York appellate court judge’s comments on the grand jury process: “A District Attorney can indict a ham sandwich.”
While I’m not prepared to say that a cover-up is going on here between the Mount Pleasant, New York Police Department and the Westchester County District Attorney’s Office, as Dedham Massachusetts criminal defense lawyer, I believe strongly that a more independent party should have investigated this case. That is simple common sense. By doing otherwise, police and prosecutors in this case have created the appearance of bias and partiality. They brought this suspicion onto themselves, and they should not have. I work with police and prosecutors every day. The vast majority of them are honest, ethical professionals. What was done with this investigation does not reflect well on that majority. Complete transparency is needed here.