February 2, 2006

Case To Test Stricter Sentencing for Harming Officers

Staff Reporter of the Sun

The case of Damien Henry is the first test of a new state law that increased sentences for people who harm or attempt to harm police officers.

The Kings County District Attorney Charles Hynes emphasized the importance of the new sentencing statute at a press conference yesterday announcing Mr. Henry's indictment on charges of aggravated murder and menacing of a police officer.

"Some crimes are so terrible that people who commit them need to be taken off the streets for the rest of their lives," Mr. Hynes said. "Anyone who fires a gun at a police officer must know that he is going to face serious prison time, and this law ensures Damien Henry will spend a long time behind bars."

At about 4 a.m. on January 21, bouncers at the Rag Top Lounge, 1308 Utica Avenue, in East Flatbush, found Mr. Henry, 24, in possession of an Uzi assault rifle when they frisked him, the district attorney's office said. They refused to grant him entry and called the police. Mr. Henry allegedly withdrew his gun and fired at the club. Two uniformed officers responded, pulled out their weapons, and identified themselves as police officers, the district attorney's office said. A chase ensued and Mr. Henry allegedly shot at and missed the officers. The officers returned fire, hitting Mr. Henry several times.

"The new crimes against police laws can make an important difference in the attitudes of criminals toward the police," the president of the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, Patrick Lynch, said at the press conference. "Vigorous prosecution under these laws will instill respect for the badge and uniform in the mind of the criminal community."

The Crimes Against Police Act, signed into law by Governor Pataki December 21, altered the sentencing structure by increasing mandatory minimums for people convicted of harming or attempting to harm an on duty officer. Should Mr. Henry be convicted of the murder charge, he faces 20 years to life in prison: Before, he would have received 15 years to life.

The aggravated murder statute applies in situations when a defendant is older than 18 and intended to kill a police officer. Menacing a police officer is applicable in cases when a defendant used a weapon to threaten an officer. The laws require the defendant to have known the officer was on duty.

Though Governor Pataki had been pressing for tougher penalties for a long time, the deaths of two police officers last year prompted a greater push, the director of the state's Division of Criminal Justice Services, Chauncey Parker, said.

Learning that the law was applied in Mr. Henry's case, a spokeswoman for the governor, Mollie Fullington, said, "The brave men and women who dedicate their lives to keeping our families safe must be protected with equal vigor. We are pleased that our new, tougher sentencing requirements will ensure that those who harm a police officer are penalized to the fullest extent possible.

Some academics were skeptical of the new law, however.

"It's hard to say that changing the sentence will have a marginal deterrence effect," a professor of law at Fordham University, Daniel Richman, said.

A Columbia University law professor, Jeffrey Fagan, said it will be difficult to assess the law's effectiveness because shootings of police officers occur infrequently. "We will not know," he said. "You can't study the effects of rare events."

Still, he said, the law "has political value. It expresses societal outrage at people shooting at police officers."