Nicholas Heyward is a haunted man. He is one of many New Yorkers who have lost loved ones to the police. Nineteen years ago, Heyward's son was playing with a toy gun in the stairwell of a Boerum Hill housing project in Brooklyn, New York, when he was fatally shot by an NYPD officer. Nicholas Jr. was 13 years old when he was killed.
"I heard Nick say, 'We're playing,' and then I heard a boom," Katrell Fowler, a friend of Nick Jr.'s told the New York Times shortly after the incident. Yet blame was placed on the boy's toy rifle, instead of officer Brian George, who fired his very real revolver into the child's abdomen.
The tragedy Heyward suffered has turned him into an activist. These days he spends much of his time calling for the Justice Department to review cases of alleged abuse committed by the NYPD, including that of his son's. Heyward claims he had a deposition taken by his attorney in which officer George contradicts reasons cited by Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes—currently up for reelection and the subject of a new reality show on CBS—for closing the case.
“Hynes said the stairwell was dimly lit, it was not. Hynes said George was responding to a 911 call, he was not.” Heyward has written several letters to Hynes over the years, he said, without receiving a response. In 2001, he was granted a meeting with the Brooklyn DA, after confronting him at a press conference. Heyward pleaded his case in Hynes's office but nothing came of it. The DA's office declined to comment on Heyward's allegations when I called them yesterday, saying that since the case is more than ten years old, the office did not have the case's file on hand. But for Heyward, the the pain of the slaying of his 13-year-old boy are still very fresh.
“I want the officer who murdered my son to go to jail,” he said to me, dressed all in black and holding a school-portrait photograph of his son over his heart at a protest last Friday in front of the Federal Court building in Manhattan's Foley Square to demand the Justice Department appoint an independent prosecutor to scrutinize the death of his son and those of other's killed by the NYPD.
Heyward is not alone in his suspicion of foul play in Hynes executions of justice. The DA has recently come under great scrutiny for spending years refusing to review convictions that he and his predecessor obtained through working with a homicide detective of such dubious repute. Last week, the Hynes office was forced to reopen 50 cases in which NYPD Detective Louis Scarcella was involved, after the Times uncovered that he obtained false confessions, lied, and relied on testimony from a single, crack-addicted prostitute to obtain a number of convictions. While families of those convicted through Scarlla's police plan to start bird-dogging Hynes, others, like Heyward, have vowed to win justice for those they will never see again.
“It doesn't matter how long I have to be out here fighting and exposing the reality of what happened. I'm going to keep at it,” said Heyward who believes there is a clear conflict of interest between New York City's DAs and the NYPD since they are both on the same side of the law. “When cops are involved, it's like district attorneys forget how to prosecute.”
A more recent killing may end up hurting Hynes as he makes his reelection bid. Kimani Gray, a 16-year-old East Flatbush youth of Guyanese descent, was shot while leaving a party on March 9 by NYPD Officers Mourad Mourad and Jovaniel Cordova. The cops say they approached Gray for adjusting his waistband, which the plainclothes detectives took as a sign that Gray was carrying a weapon. The pair fired 11 shots at the boy—seven hit his body and three went into his back.
Police say they recovered a .38-caliber handgun on the teenager, with three bullets in its chamber, but at least one witness has come forward stating Gray was unarmed and that he pleaded with officers for his life while they stood over him.
Last Wednesday, lawyers representing the Gray family said they possess video evidence indicating that police radioed for backup before calling Gray an ambulance and that up to 15 minutes passed before the teenager received medical attention. They plan to file a wrongful death suit against the city.
“In this system, there is no justice,” said City Council Member Charles Barron who, with Gray's mother Carol, met with Hynes to urge him to place Maurad and Cordova in front of a grand jury. “First we have to rely on the DA's office. They prosecute on a state level. We've been going there. Then, if he doesn't do it, we'll take it to the US Justice Department as a civil rights matter.” Barron added that while the wrongful-death suit could bring monetary compensation, nobody would be going to jail because of it. “That's why we have to keep the heat in the street,” he said.
Two months later, the child's memory still remains fresh to his family. “Even though it's been 60 days,” said Kimani's mother, Carol Gray, “it feels like 60 minutes” since he was killed. And she said she “hasn't heard anything to be confident about” from Hynes's office. “The justice that we want to prevail doesn't set any standards for mothers out there that worry, that fear for their kids' lives. Since the police around here don't serve and protect, I'm hoping that the Justice Department will serve and protect.”
Robert Nardoza, a spokesman for the Justice Department's Eastern New York Division said the department, as a matter of policy, does not comment on specifics of individual cases and would not say whether his office was considering stepping in.
Nine months before Gray perished, another East Flatbush resident was killed by police. Officer Philip Atkins shot unarmed, 23-year-old Shantel Davis in the stomach on June 14, 2012, after she crashed an allegedly stolen Toyota Camry into a telephone pole. She was then dragged from the vehicle, cuffed, and placed face down on the street, where she bled to death. The incident took place in broad daylight. There were many witnesses, some of whom said they had used their cell phones to document the incident, but police confiscated them along with a security camera from a nearby laundromat. One photograph that showed Davis lying face down in a pool of blood did escape, an image many feel is emblematic of the value the NYPD places on life in communities of color.
In August, Hynes met with the Davis family and their attorneys. He assured them that the DA was investigating. That was nine months ago and Hynes says that if there was sufficient evidence to bring an indictment to a grand jury for the deaths of both Davis and Gray, he would have done so already.
In the meantime, Hynes commended Police Commissioner Ray Kelly for putting officers involved in the shootings on administrative leave, adding that Kelly “will do nothing until our investigation is complete.” However, media reports indicate that Officer Atkins along with Kimani's slayers Mourad and Cordova are not on leave. They're on desk duty at the 67th Precinct, leading critics to charge the station is becoming a club house for killer cops. Among the three officers, the city had paid out $335,000 in settlements for civil rights violations and abuse prior to the deaths of Davis and Gray. The NYPD's Office of Public Information did not respond to inquiries.
In all, 24 civilians have died by NYPD bullets since January 1, 2012, according to the Stolen Lives Project, which tracks slayings committed by cops. No criminal indictments have been filed and in only one case—that of 18-year-old Ramarley Graham, shot in his Bronx home on February, 2 2012—has a grand-jury indictment been issued.
The NYPD said they followed Graham after witnessing the youth purchase narcotics and believed he had a gun in his waistband. They claimed they were in hot pursuit, but surveillance footage shows Graham entering his home from one direction and officers rushing up and kicking down the door from the opposite direction three minutes later. Graham was attempting to flush marijuana down the toilet when he was shot by officer Richard Haste. Graham's grandmother and six-year-old brother were in the home when he was killed.
“It's difficult for me to even speak about it,” said Graham's mother, Constance Malcolm to me. “He was killed in my house. That place was supposed to be his sanctuary.”
Bronx DA Robert Johnson brought a grand-jury indictment against Richard Haste for manslaughter last fall, but the case has lagged in court, and last week Bronx Supreme Court Justice Steven Barrett indicated he was considering throwing it out entirely, since prosecutors may have improperly told jurors not to consider Haste had been informed by other officers that Graham had a gun. This Wednesday, Judge Barrett will hear arguments from Haste's lawyers and attorneys from Johnson's office. If the case is thrown out, Haste would have to be reindicted all over again.
Malcolm blames racial profiling for the death of her son, which she says is widespread in New York City, manifested through the NYPD's policy of “Stop, Question, and Frisk.” According to figures from the American Civil Liberties Union, blacks and latino's comprised nearly 90 percent of those stopped and frisked by the NYPD between 2002 and 2011 for such innocuous reasons as wearing clothes commonly used in a crime and making furtive movements.
"The public has every reason to question whether this shooting was the product of the NYPD marijuana arrest crusade, or whether it's the product of their hyperaggressive stop-and-frisk program," Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, told the Huffington Post.
Before marching to the Federal Court House on Friday, family members of those killed by the NYPD over the past two decades gathered at 1 Police Plaza. Nicholas Heyward and Councilman Barron were on hand, along with a number of mothers who would be marking Mother's Day that Sunday without their children. Still seeking justice, they included, Iris Baez, whose son died of asphyxiation in 1994 while in NYPD custody; Juanita Young, whose son Malcolm Ferguson was shot by a plainclothes officer in 2000; and Valerie Bell, whose son Sean Bell received 50 bullet wounds in 2006, outside a night club on his wedding night. In all of these cases, the victims died and the police have not been charged. Constance Malcolm couldn't attend, but she expressed her support to me. Unless courts start holding the NYPD accountable, she said, “This is going to happen again.”
Bronx DA Robert Johnson brought a grand-jury indictment against Richard Haste for manslaughter last fall, but the case lagged in court. Today, Bronx Supreme Court Justice Steven Barrett threw out the indictment, finding that prosecutors improperly told jurors not to consider Haste had been informed by his colleagues that Graham had a gun.
In a statement released ahead of Haste's day in court Wednesday, Malcolm expressed outrage that her son's killer might be absolved on a technicality, writing that “there was no technicality when this murderer illegally gained access to my building, ran upstairs, and kicked off my apartment door and murdered my son.”
More on unarmed shootings and NYPD's stop-and-frisk: