February 15, 2010
An Officer Shoots, a 73-Year-Old Dies, and Schisms Return
They have waited ever since last Feb. 20, when Bernard Monroe, a 73-year-old black man left mute from throat cancer, was shot to death in his front yard by a white police officer who claimed, contrary to other witnesses, that Mr. Monroe had a pistol. They waited as the state police finished its investigation, as the case was passed on to the state attorney general and as a grand jury deliberated on a list of charges, including murder, manslaughter and negligent homicide.
And on Feb. 4, after two days of testimony, the jury delivered its decision: no indictment.
The outcome jarred a town of 3,400 that, like so many small Southern towns, has been struggling to move past a heritage of racial mistrust. Even among disillusioned black residents, it seemed like a throwback to uglier times.
“Nobody felt like he was going to get jail time,” said Faye Williams, 55, discussing the decision with others at Laketha’s Salon downtown and referring to the officer. “But we thought there’d be at least a trial or something. It just ain’t right.”
Last week, the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a wrongful death lawsuit on behalf of Mr. Monroe’s family against the town and two former police officers, arguing that they had failed “to exercise reasonable care” and “created a volatile situation” in the series of events that led up to the shooting.
Jim Colvin, the town attorney, said he had just received the lawsuit and did not know enough about it to respond to its accusations.
The shooting happened on a Friday afternoon. Mr. Monroe had been sitting in a folding chair on the edge of his yard, amid more than a dozen friends and relatives. Two Homer police officers, Tim Cox and Joseph Henry, pulled up in separate cars and began making small talk, several witnesses said.
Shaun Monroe, Mr. Monroe’s son, who had been sitting in his truck in the street, pulled into the driveway. The younger Mr. Monroe, 38, has a criminal record, including charges in 1994 of firearms possession and assaulting a police officer, his last felony charges.
But there was no warrant for his arrest that Friday. Kurt Wall, the assistant attorney general who presented the evidence in the case to the grand jury, said the officers had been told that if they ever saw Shaun Monroe with a black bag, which they say they did, it probably contained drugs.
No other witnesses saw such a bag that day. But when Officer Henry called his name, Shaun Monroe darted behind the house, went back around the front and ran inside. Officer Cox followed and chased him through the house, a chase that, the lawsuit argues, was “without just cause” or legal justification.
Shaun Monroe burst out of the front door and was at the front gate when Officer Henry, who was in the yard, hit him with a Taser. Seconds later, Officer Cox reached the front screen door from the inside, witnesses said, as the elder Mr. Monroe was walking up the steps to the porch.
Officer Cox told investigators that the elder Mr. Monroe had picked up a pistol he kept on the porch and was aiming it at Officer Henry. All of the civilian witnesses say Mr. Monroe was carrying only a sports drink bottle.
But this is not in dispute: Mr. Cox shot Mr. Monroe seven times in the chest, side and back. Several witnesses said they saw a police officer later place the pistol next to Mr. Monroe’s body, but the police officers said that was because it had been moved when they were checking his wounds.
Much of the town, which is nearly two-thirds black, went into an uproar. In April, the Rev. Al Sharpton led a rally in Homer. In July, the two officers, who had been on leave, resigned and left town.
The state police produced a report in August, and, after reviewing it for several months, the district attorney passed it on to the state attorney general. A local prosecution presented a conflict, he said, as the two officers were witnesses in other parish cases.
The grand jury consisted of eight whites and four blacks, all from Homer and the surrounding area. Mr. Wall said that more than 20 witnesses testified, civilians as well as law enforcement officers.
“We just put everybody on and let them say whatever they had to say or observe and let the jury make their determination,” he said. “We felt it was a very thorough and accurate presentation.”
Many in the town, including some whites, are skeptical. They point out, for instance, that the forensic pathologist who performed the autopsy was never called to testify about the nature of Mr. Monroe’s wounds.
“No one knows more about the way Mr. Monroe died than I do,” said Frank Peretti, the Little Rock-based pathologist, who was surprised to learn about the grand jury’s decision in the news. (Mr. Wall said his presence had not been necessary, as the parish coroner testified and had the autopsy report.)
Others see the case as closed.
“I just wish the black community could get beyond this,” said Toney Johnson, 61, one of two whites on the five-person town council. “The law has done its job, in my opinion.”
Mr. Johnson, who pointed out that Homer elected a black mayor several years ago with significant white support, said the council had become polarized along racial lines since the shooting. He says that Officer Cox was only doing what many residents in the poor, mostly black parts of town had requested — getting tough on the drug problem.
“It’s very tragic that this happened, but it happens,” he said.
The elected chief of police, Russell Mills, who is white, said he was advised by the town lawyer not to comment. He drew criticism shortly after the shooting for a statement he made to The Chicago Tribune that seemed to advocate racial profiling.
In a letter clarifying that statement in The Guardian-Journal of Claiborne Parish, Mr. Mills wrote that residents of high-crime neighborhoods had urged him to do something about numerous shootings, so he had developed a policy of “preventative policing,” in which officers stop groups of young people walking in these neighborhoods, ask for identification “and possibly pat them down.”
That approach, also used by some big-city police departments, is all too familiar to black residents here, many of whom call it harassment.
Though Homer has come far from the intense racial friction of the 1960s, a sense of mistrust has lingered, both white and black residents say. And though even some whites in town are privately troubled by the grand jury’s decision, many black residents have come away with bitter resignation.
“If it was a black man killing a white man, he’d be in jail, no question,” said Shavontae Ball, 20, whose sisters saw the shooting. “It’s like my grandmother said: ‘Ain’t nothing ever change in Homer.’ ”
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"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs