A Brooklyn grand jury yesterday refused to indict a police officer in the fatal shooting of an unarmed 19-year-old man on the roof of a housing project last month. The New York Times reports that district attorney Charles J. Hynes had asked the jury to consider charging the officer with criminally negligent homicide and manslaughter. Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly had called the shooting apparently unjustified.
Some experts thought there might be an indictment because the victim, Timothy Stansbury Jr., who was black, was armed or committing a crime. No words were exchanged before the shot was fired between the officer, Richard S. Neri Jr., who is white, and Stansbury. Neri, who took the unusual step of testifying in his own behalf, told jurors he fired unintentionally when he was startled as Stansbury pushed open a rooftop door.
Stansbury’s family reiterated their view that his death was a crime. “I’m very, very angry, and I’m upset,” said Irene Clayburne, the victim’s grandmother. “I want this cop to go to jail.”
The grand jury’s decision does not preclude a finding of civil liability on the part of the Police Department, the city, or Neri. To indict Neri, the jury had to find his actions a “gross deviation from the standard of care that a reasonable person would observe.”
“The grand jury, in interpreting this rather general language, is bringing to bear the conscience of the community on the police officer’s conduct,” said Stephen Gillers, a professor of legal ethics at New York University School of Law. “We don’t know if the grand jury thought the officer was negligent, because that was not the question,” he said. “…A mistake, or a simple act of negligence, is not enough to be criminal.”
The jury decision underscored the unwillingness of grand juries to find fault in cases where officers make mistakes in settings where they had reasons to be fearful and their actions were in good faith. In the case of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed West African slain in 1999, four officers were acquitted after they said they fired 41 shots at him because they thought he was reaching for a gun, when it was his wallet.