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No indictment of officer in death of unarmed youth.

Byline: Joseph Goldstein

NEW YORK -- Eighteen months after a police officer barged into a private residence and fatally shot an unarmed teenager in the bathroom of the home, the criminal case against the officer has collapsed with a grand jury's decision to not bring charges in the case.

The decision, which was announced on Thursday morning, was met with shock from the Bronx district attorney, Robert T. Johnson, and it prompted calls for a federal civil rights investigation and an independent prosecutor. By late afternoon, the U.S. attorney's office in Manhattan said it would review the evidence to "determine whether there were any violations of the federal criminal civil rights laws.''

Nonetheless, the grand jury decision stirred anger and talk of racism among supporters and relatives of the shooting victim, Ramarley Graham, 18. Graham was black; the officer, Richard Haste, is white.

Narcotics officers had become suspicious of Graham as he walked through the Wakefield section of the Bronx with two friends. Haste, 31, pursued the teenager, forcing his way into the apartment where Graham lived with his grandmother. The officer confronted Graham in the bathroom and shot him, after he mistakenly interpreted a gesture as Graham reaching for a gun, according to Haste's account to the grand jury.

The resulting tensions had been largely calmed after Haste was initially indicted last year on manslaughter charges. But a judge dismissed the indictment in May, saying prosecutors had improperly precluded the grand jury from considering Haste's claim that he believed Graham was armed, based on what he had heard fellow officers say over a police radio.

The judge's ruling allowed prosecutors to seek a new indictment. On Tuesday, Haste testified before the panel, telling grand jurors that he had repeatedly directed Graham to "show me your hands,'' according to the officer's lawyer, Stuart London.

London acknowledged that "it was surprising'' for a grand jury in the Bronx to vote against prosecuting an officer after such a shooting. "The grand jury should be commended for the courage they had in the face of such a tragedy to keep an open mind and allow my client to tell his side of the story,'' he said.

Although the officer will not face state charges for the shooting, he still faces the federal inquiry and a disciplinary review within the Police Department; Graham's family is also suing the police.

At a news conference outside the district attorney's office on Thursday, Graham's father, Frank Graham, said, "Everything just seems dark.''

Speaking before two dozen protesters and several politicians, the father said, "We have to ask ourselves this question: 'Had Ramarley been white, would this have happened? Would they have run in a white person's home?'''

The turn of events is all the more surprising because Bronx juries tend to be far more skeptical of police actions than juries elsewhere. About 16 police officers are currently under indictment there on charges related to a widespread ticket-fixing scandal that has also cast a pall over state Supreme Court in the borough, as defense lawyers cite the scandal to suggest that the police cannot be trusted to testify truthfully.

Johnson said, "We are surprised and shocked by the grand jury's finding of no criminal liability in the death of Ramarley Graham. We are saddened for the family of the deceased young man and still believe that the court's dismissal of the original indictment was overly cautious.''

For a time it had appeared that Haste would be the first New York City officer to stand criminal trial for a fatal shooting in the line of duty since three officers were tried -- and acquitted -- in 2008 for the shooting of Sean Bell, who died in a hail of 50 police bullets outside a Queens club.

The shooting of Graham provoked widespread outrage amid allegations of racial profiling and criticism of the aggressive tactics that led the police to pursue him and force their way into his apartment after finding the door locked. Anger over the shooting is memorialized even in Google's mapping function: The street view of Graham's home shows a white fence thickly decorated with votive candles and posters criticizing the New York Police Department (one compares the department to the Ku Klux Klan).

Immediately after the shooting, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg expressed "real concerns.'' His police commissioner, Raymond W. Kelly, ordered a review of the street narcotics enforcement units, which are responsible for arresting low-level street dealers and their customers.

Untrained in undercover work, they are limited to making arrests after they witness a drug sale, often observed from afar through binoculars. In the wake of Graham's death, the focus of the squads shifted from narcotics work to youth gangs.

On Feb. 2, 2012, the narcotics team focused on Graham as he walked through the Wakefield section of the Bronx with two friends. Something about how he moved his hands near his waist led the officers to suspect that he might be armed, and as the surveillance progressed, two officers said over the radio that they had seen the butt of a gun.

Haste said he was relying on what his fellow officers had observed as he rushed to the scene and broke into the apartment where Graham lived with his grandmother.

As he told the grand jury Tuesday over the course of five hours of testimony, according to his lawyer, he confronted Graham, who had darted into the bathroom.

But Graham ignored repeated warnings and ultimately reached for his waistband in what Haste took to be a gesture of a man reaching for a gun, the lawyer said.

When Haste saw Graham reach down one final time, "he believed he would be shot and killed,'' London said, adding that it was at that point that Haste fired a single, fatal shot.

"I think the grand jury found there were many opportunities for Ramarley Graham to end the situation with no violence and no shooting and he did not avail himself of those opportunities,'' London said.

A bag of marijuana was later found in the toilet and investigators think Graham's final act was a bid to flush the drugs away.

No gun was found.
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Author:Goldstein, Joseph
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Aug 9, 2013
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