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Racial heat roils St. Pete:
Cop cleared in fatal shooting

Just hours after a white police officer was cleared in the fatal shooting of a black motorist, renewed racial tensions flared in St. Petersburg, Fla., on Nov. 13, including scattered gunshots that left two other officers wounded.

A Pinellas County grand jury ruled that the death of Tyrone Lewis, 18, was “the result of a justifiable homicide under Florida law,” said the county’s State Attorney, Bernie McCabe.

The exonerated officer, James Knight, and his partner, Officer Sandra Minor, had stopped Lewis for speeding on Oct. 24, and the grand jury concluded that Knight was in danger of being run over by the car driven by Lewis. The shooting of Lewis was not racially motivated, the grand jury said, noting that its findings “are the only conclusions that could reasonably be reached.”

Police and the U.S. Justice Department continue to conduct their own investigations into the fatal shooting incident. According to police, Lewis refused Knight’s request to roll down his window and failed to comply with other commands. Knight fired several times after the Lewis’s car allegedly came at him.

“The vehicle lurched forward, the car wheels were turned toward the officer. That’s when he fired the weapon through the windshield of the car,” said Police Chief Darrell Stephens.

But witnesses quoted by The St. Petersburg Times said Knight, an eight-year police veteran, was standing with his hands on the hood when the car inched forward and his partner yelled for him to shoot. One witness, Lisa Craft, said Knight fired five times. “The boy wasn’t going fast enough to run them over,” she said.

Lewis died on the way to the hospital.

Although Knight will not face criminal charges in connection with the shooting, he was suspended with pay for 60 days while an internal investigation continues. Stephens, who said that officers are trained to move out of jeopardy before resorting to deadly force, said Knight failed to take “reasonable means to avoid the danger.”

The shooting of Lewis had sparked a night of rioting by hundreds of black residents that left a dozen people injured, including two police officers, and resulted in at least a score of arrests.

A 25-block-area in the city’s predominantly black south side exploded in arson blazes, destroying nearly 30 properties, including a police substation.

The following day, Stephens ordered a 72-hour “state of emergency,” barring sales of guns and gasoline in containers. Two hundred National Guard troops were on stand-by at a local stadium, but were not needed, as hundred of extra police, some from other Florida jurisdictions, were mobilized to patrol tense streets.

City officials and community leaders met in the days after the Oct. 24 riot to urge calm and begin a process of healing racial tensions that some say have been building for some time in the city, which is 20 percent black. However, any uneasy peace that may have been achieved was quickly dispelled after the grand jury handed up its decision, as angry protesters returned to the streets.

The renewed disturbances led to one officer being treated at a hospital for a gunshot wound below his left knee. The officer was shot in front of a house belonging to members of the National People’s Democratic Uhuru Movement, a black separatist group that has called for the executions of the officers involved in the killing of Tyrone Lewis.

Another officer was wounded in the arm after a bullet pierced the windshield of the sheriff’s helicopter he was co-piloting, forcing the aircraft to make an emergency landing.

Chief Stephens was hired in 1993 to mend racial divisiveness both inside and outside the Police Department that had contributed to the firing of his predecessor, Ernest “Curt” Curtsinger.  He instituted a community policing philosophy and ordered cultural-diversity training for all 700 department employees.

Stephens said there may be a few racist officers on the force, 17 percent of which is black, but said he does not believe officers routinely target minority residents for harassment.

“Clearly there’s racism in our society, and we have those kinds of problems in our department, but our officers’ behavior, by and large, is professional,” Stephens said.

Mayor David Fischer said the city appeared to be moving beyond the racial animosity that had flared in the early 1990s, when the city was given an “F” in race relations by the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. The group has since raised the city’s grade to a “B,” he noted.

“I think the failing is in the young adult group, the 18- to 28-year-old who feels disenfranchised and disillusioned,” the Mayor said. “We’re going to do a lot of work evaluating what happened. Are we on the wrong path? Are we different than other cities? We’re going to work real hard on that.”

In a related development, the St. Petersburg Police Benevolent Association charged that police were not prepared to respond effectively to recent rioting because the department is understaffed and ill-equipped. PBA officials said the department is 50 officers below its authorized strength, had insufficient riot gear and not enough portable radios. In addition, the union charged, officers did not receive training in riot or crowd-control procedures, the union charged.

Police officials said they are working to correct the problems.

An acquittal & a mistrial in cases against Pa. cops

Racial tensions in the Pittsburgh area are percolating after an all-white jury acquitted a white police officer of involuntary manslaughter in the death of a black motorist  a verdict that followed by just weeks a judge’s declaration of mistrial in a companion case against two other white officers.

The jury verdict returned Nov. 13 in Allegheny County Court cleared John Vojtas, 40, an officer with the suburban Brentwood Police Department, who was one of several officers charged in the death of Jonny E. Gammage, 31. Vojtas was tried separately because he claimed self-defense.

The racially charged case took an earlier unexpected turn on Oct. 18, when an Allegheny County Court judge declared a mistrial in the case against two other white officers charged in Gammage’s death, after a coroner testifying for the prosecution said that one of the officers ought to tell the jury what happened.

Judge David Cashman said he had no choice but to end the 10-day-old proceedings against the two suburban police officers, Lieut. Milton Mulholland, 56, of the Brentwood Police Department, and Officer Michael Albert, 32, of the Baldwin Police Department.

Gammage, who was a cousin of a local celebrity, Pittsburgh Steelers defensive end Ray Seals, was pulled over Oct. 12, 1995, by police who said he kept tapping on the brakes of Seals’ Jaguar, which he was driving at the time. He got out of the vehicle holding a cellular telephone, which officers mistook for a gun. After a struggle, the officers subdued him by pressing on his back and neck, and the resulting asphyxiation killed him.

Mulholland and Albert, who faced up to five years in prison if convicted, said they followed their training on how to control unruly suspects. They claim they did not know the tactics could result in death.

The lawyers for Vojtas, on the other hand, labeled Gammage’s death an accident, asserting that it could have resulted from exhaustion of an adrenaline rush rather than from the force used by police. By the time Gammage died, they added, Vojtas had already left the scene to seek treatment for his thumb, which Gammage had bitten during his struggle with police.

The judge’s decision in the case against Mulholland and Albert came following testimony by Dr. Cyril Wecht, the Allegheny County Coroner, who was presented as one of the prosecution’s star witnesses. He was expected to bolster testimony of the coroner who had examined Gammage’s body and determined he died from asphyxiation caused by the pressure on his neck and back.

During cross-examination, defense attorney Patrick Thomassey, who was representing Mulholland, told Wecht: “You tell me what my client did. You tell me what my client did from A to Z.”

“No, it’s not for me to tell you what your client did,” Wecht replied. “It’s for the client to tell me, the ladies and gentlemen of the jury, what he did, what he was doing there and why he was participating in this.”

Thomassey promptly demanded a mistrial. “I am so personally affronted by what he did…. I think it’s almost intentional,” he said.

An angry Judge Cashman criticized the prosecution for not reining in its witness. “What am I supposed to tell the jury? Am I supposed to tell them to disregard that statement?” he asked. “You can’t tell folks not to look at a blue elephant, and this is a blue elephant.”

Prosecutor Anthony Krastek said Wecht’s comment was inappropriate but may have been provoked by Thomassey’s aggressive questioning. Wecht’s appearance on the stand came just hours after he had appeared on national television, criticizing the selection of an all-white jury in the controversial case.

Because of the immense publicity the case had generated in the Pittsburgh area, the jury selection took place in predominantly white West Chester, a suburb of Philadelphia.

The judge said a new jury could be seated within two months, but it will be up to the state Supreme Court to decide where jury selection for the retrial will be conducted. Jennifer H. Guinee, a lawyer for Gammage’s parents, said they were disappointed by the development. She said defense lawyers could ask the judge to dismiss the charges on grounds that a second trial would amount to double jeopardy for the two officers.

Defense lawyers, prosecutors, the defendants and all witnesses are under a gag order that bars them from commenting on the case.

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Published in Law Enforcement News
Dec. 15, 1996.
© 1996, LEN Inc.