Fault Lines
11 December 2017

Justice Ignored: The Unseen Tragedy Of Ramarley Graham

Mar. 10, 2016 (Mimesis Law) — This week, the Department of Justice announced an end to their investigation into the shooting death of Ramarley Graham. In July 2012, NYPD Officer Richard Haste entered the home of Graham’s grandmother, Patricia Hartley, without a warrant and shot the unarmed teen in the bathroom of his family’s home.  The DOJ has decided not to present the case against Haste to a grand jury.  In other words, they punted.

Because sometimes, cops just decide to go after a kid they think is a bad dude, and ignore all procedures, law and constitutional rights, in the process. Sometimes, they just shoot them, whether for a bad reason or no reason.  Sometimes, they make up the best story they can afterward to make themselves not look nearly as guilty as they are, even if the story is ridiculous and full of holes.

And sometimes, the United States Attorney doesn’t feel that his office is good enough to win a case, and he doesn’t want to suffer the humiliation of getting whipped, so he delays as long as he can, and then punts.

Scott Greenfield succinctly covered the reasons to be disheartened at United States Attorney Preet Bharara’s decision. But two other agencies in this amalgam of injustice deserve a closer look.  The NYPD and the Bronx District Attorney’s Office.

Now that the DOJ is out of the way, we can expect the NYPD to wrap up its internal investigation shortly. If anyone wants to put odds on any punishment being handed down on Haste or any of the other officers, I will bet this old, but sturdy bridge here in Brooklyn, that I totally own.

The NYPD investigation file will certainly get a “justified” stamp (if there is any ink left). The officers, based upon flimsy assumptions that a black kid who let his hands get too close to his waist was an armed threat, broke into Hartley’s home without a warrant. Haste claims that when he found Graham in the bathroom of the home, the unarmed teen motioned like he had a gun and Haste shot him in the chest.

All that was left was a dead black teenager, a horrified grandmother and little brother (who were in the home), and the baggie of weed that was in the unflushed toilet. That and a broken family and community that has spent the last four years demanding justice from a system that seems allergic to it.

Like so many other cases like Graham’s, but for a video, public outrage would not be so widespread. The footage shows Graham walking into his grandmother’s building unlike the initial police story that Graham “fled” into the home. That is, unless the NYPD Patrol Guide defines “fled” as “casually approaching and then just as casually entering a relative’s home.”  Because that is exactly what Graham did.

Just moments after the door closed, two officers ran up to the door and attempted to open it, unsuccessfully. While one officer repeatedly kicked the door, other officers circled around to the back and gained entry there.  The sequence of events looks less like police chasing an actual gun suspect and more like police trying to get inside a home without the trouble of a warrant.

Based upon where Graham and the officers were in the video, if the officers had actual suspicion that Graham was armed, they would have ordered Graham to the ground before he ever got to the door. Graham’s casual demeanor indicates that the officers, who were absolutely within sight and sound of Graham, said nothing to him and gave no indication that he was the target of their “investigation.”

Instead, they waited until Graham disappeared behind the door and then ran up to try to force their way inside.

Why would the police do this? Think about it.  These were narcotics officers.  Rightly or wrongly, they were in that neighborhood to find drugs.  And rightly or wrongly (wrongly), they figured there might be loads of drugs in this home.  So they were presented with an opportunity to bypass the warrant requirement, and they took it.

Not convinced? If someone with a gun disappears behind a door, does it make sense to kick that door repeatedly while other officers stand around the house in clear sight of the potential gunman?  The video shows the police acting disturbingly unlike officers who had a legitimate concern about a suspect with an actual firearm.

Then again, maybe this is all just crazy talk. Maybe an 18-year-old black kid in the Bronx would see the NYPD closing in and not react accordingly.  Or maybe the same officers that seemed to get everything else wrong on that fateful day just really wanted to get into that house.

But four months after the shooting, the Bronx District Attorney stepped into the fray with manslaughter charges against Haste. A regular person would be arrested in four seconds, but cops are not regular people. Four months.  Was this a quest for justice or was this a show to appease the throngs of protestors who refused to allow Ramarley Graham to be another forgotten statistic?

Whatever the motivation or catalyst, the Bronx District Attorney’s Office did put the case against Richard Haste before a grand jury and for the first time since 2007, an NYPD officer was indicted for a fatal shooting. However, that indictment did not stick.

In New York, following an indictment, a judge reviews the grand jury minutes for legal sufficiency.  To say that it is rare for a judge to toss an indictment would be an understatement.  But that is exactly what Judge Barrett did.  And he was legally right to do it.

Although a defendant is often lion food in the coliseum of the grand jury, there are actually rules to the process. One of those rules (stated generally) is that the defendant has a right to present a legally valid defense.  During his testimony, Haste mentioned the radio transmission he heard that said that Graham was armed.  This transmission was relevant evidence of Haste’s state of mind at the time, and under a theory of self-defense, he was absolutely entitled to testify to it.  But the assistant DA instructed the grand jury to disregard this part of his testimony.

There is no doubt that on a high-profile case like the one against Haste, that a top assistant was placed in charge of the presentment. So if this wasn’t the mistake of some overzealous yet green assistant, how did this happen?

A theory is that the Bronx DA’s Office has a policy of violating the rights of defendant’s to present a justification defense in the grand jury. If this is their practice, how many non-cop defendants have had their right to present a valid defense stifled in the grand jury without the injustice being rectified?  For guidance, one need look no further than former Bronx DA Robert Johnson’s response to Judge Barrett’s correct legal ruling, that turns theory into reality.

Johnson’s office said it vehemently disagrees with Barrett’s assessment that the misstep in instructing the grand jury was enough to “impair the integrity of the grand jury proceeding.”

It most certainly impaired the integrity of that grand jury. But he killed an unarmed kid, so who cares?  The real issue is not about Haste, but about the impaired integrity of all the other defendants in all the other grand juries.  Will the Bronx DA’s office stop violating the rights of criminal defendants?  Or does the law only benefit the police, and only after prosecutors have been reminded of the law by a judge?

Judge Barrett gave the DA leave to represent the case to another grand jury. The second grand jury voted not to indict Haste.  DA Johnson this time found fault with the citizens sitting on that Bronx grand jury.

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.

With the facts and evidence that existed in the case against Richard Haste, the fault did not lie with Judge Barret or the grand jurors.

The years since Ramarley Graham’s death have displayed a tragedy of injustice at almost every level. When an unarmed teen shot dead in his own bathroom is legally justified, it is difficult to even remember the meaning of the word justice.  But if the actions of the NYPD and the Bronx DA’s Office are any indication, things might be even worse than we thought.

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