Wall Street Journal
June 14, 2012

Officer Pleads Not Guilty in Shooting

Prosecution Is First of On-Duty Shooting in Nearly 6 Years

By Sean Gardiner and Will James

The first New York City police officer to face criminal charges for an on-duty shooting in nearly six years pleaded not guilty Wednesday as his lawyer and prosecutors offered differing accounts of his fatal encounter with an unarmed teenager.

As the teen's parents watched in the packed courtroom, Officer Richard Haste stared straight ahead without expression, balancing on crutches for injuries he received in an accident unrelated to the case.

Mr. Haste, 31 years old, was indicted on manslaughter charges Monday in the fatal shooting of 18-year-old Ramarley Graham in his Bronx home in February. A narcotics-enforcement team had pursued Mr. Graham into his apartment, where he was shot by Mr. Haste at close range while trying to flush a bag of marijuana down the toilet.

Mr. Haste is the first city officer to face criminal charges in a line-of-duty shooting since 2007, when three officers were charged in the death of an unarmed Queens man, Sean Bell, a racially charged case that reverberated throughout the country.
Prosecutors in New York City have had mixed results in pursuing similar cases, which often balance on whether the officer could "reasonably" believe that lethal force was necessary.

In the courtroom, Assistant District Attorney Donald Levin said Mr. Haste's decision to shoot was "neither reasonable or justifiable at that moment," after he cornered the teenager in the bathroom. Officers began chasing Mr. Graham after he emerged from a bodega that was under drug surveillance. Investigators thought they saw him adjusting his waistband.

"Ramarley Graham was looking at the barrel of that gun, the muzzle of that gun, and then Officer Haste pulled the trigger," Levin said.

In a preview of the defense strategy, attorney Stuart London argued that Mr. Haste was convinced the teen was armed. One of Mr. Haste's partners warned over the radio, "I see the weapon. It's on him," Mr. London said. Mr. Haste twice ordered Mr. Graham to show his hands before the fatal shooting, the lawyer said. Mr. Graham "decided to make a quick gesture toward his waistband, turning toward my client," Mr. London said.

Mr. Haste was so certain the teenager was armed that he yelled, "Gun, gun!" before firing once, striking Mr. Graham. "He was positive he was going to be killed in that bathroom and wanted to warn his fellow officers," Mr. London said.

He said Mr. Haste was born in the Bronx and attended Lehman High School before serving two years in the military. He joined the New York Police Department four years ago and had been part of the street narcotics enforcement unit for only about 60 days before the shooting.

After his arraignment, Mr. Haste posted $50,000 bail and walked into a raucous scene outside the courthouse. A group of about a dozen protesters stood in the street shouting, "NYPD, KKK, how many kids did you kill today?" while about 20 officers showed up to support Mr. Haste.

The teen's parents, Constance Malcolm and Frank Graham, also spoke extensively about the incident for the first time. Breaking into tears, the elder Mr. Graham called the charges a "start."

"I keep asking, 'Why did he kill our son? Why, why, why did he kill our son? Eighteen years old. Eighteen. He did nothing to deserve this. Nothing to deserve this," the father said.

The case comes not long after another high-profile police prosecution in the Bronx. Last year, District Attorney Robert Johnson charged 17 police officers and superiors in a wide-ranging ticket-fixing scandal.

Mr. Johnson said Wednesday that he took "no pleasure" in prosecuting officers, "but we engage criminal conduct wherever we might find it."

New York City police officers shoot and kill about 10 suspects a year, and the deaths very rarely evolve into criminal cases. In the past two decades, there have been five other prosecutions—involving 10 officers—stemming from on-duty fatal shootings.

Even more rare is a conviction. The two most recent cases, the killing of Mr. Bell in 2006 and Amadou Diallo in the Bronx in 1999, ended in acquittals on all counts against seven officers.

The cases can be difficult to prove because judges and juries are sympathetic to the "split-second decisions" that police officers have to make in the field, said Alan Vinegrad, a former Brooklyn U.S. Attorney whose office won convictions against officers in the nonfatal torture of Haitian immigrant Abner Louima. For prosecutors, "there's sort of an element of looking back and second-guessing their judgment and trying to convince a judge or jury they were wrong," Mr. Vinegrad said. "It's hard to have to go back and establish that."

State law allows officers to use lethal force to protect themselves or others in situations where they "reasonably believe" they face a deadly threat.

In a criminal case, it often doesn't matter if the officer's assessment of the threat was ultimately correct, said James Culleton, a former prosecutor who defended officers in the deaths of both Messrs. Bell and Diallo.

"They just have to reasonably believe it," Mr. Culleton said.

One law-enforcement official with experience in police cases said they are thorny territory for prosecutors, especially assistant district attorneys, who interact with police officers more than their federal peers do. Office investigators, many of whom are former members of the NYPD, "start giving you the cold shoulder or beyond." The police union can vilify prosecutors; the media watches every blip in the case.

"You're getting it from all sides," the official said. "You can't win no matter what you do…It's a long, unpleasant journey for a prosecutor."

Still, the prosecutor who tried the Diallo case for the Bronx District Attorney's Office, Eric Warner, said the uncomfortable position is part of the job.

"I certainly know many people, and I consider myself one, who was not viewed by defendants as being personal," said Mr. Warner, who now is general counsel in the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's Inspector General Office.

Several attorneys predicted the Bronx would be a challenging location for a police trial. Last year, Bronx juries returned convictions in 46% of felony trials, compared with a citywide average of 65% and perennially has ranked last citywide in that statistic, according to court statistics.

"Anything other than a police officer, you'd want a jury," said longtime defense attorney Al Gaudelli. "But with a police officer, in the Bronx they might just not believe him. They're very skeptical of police officers in the Bronx."

The last closely watched police case in the borough, the Diallo shooting, was moved to Albany after defense lawyers argued the jury pool had been tainted by media coverage.

Mr. Johnson, who opposed that change of venue, said Wednesday he believed the Haste case should be tried in the Bronx. "I think it's offensive to take the position that there are not 12 fair and just people in this county," he said.