RICHMOND, Va. — One man died a decade ago after a police officer in New York state told him to move his illegally parked car. Another, in the midst of a mental health crisis on a Virginia highway, was fatally shot by an officer in 2018.
A third man died in Oklahoma the next year after a foot chase and struggle with police. His last words echoed the ones used by Black men in similar circumstances and the chants at civil rights protests: “I can’t breathe.”
The officers involved in the deaths of Danroy “DJ” Henry Jr., 20, Marcus-David Peters, 24, and Derrick Elliot Scott, 41, all were cleared of wrongdoing. But the protests against racial injustice since George Floyd was killed during a police encounter in Minnesota have the three men’s families urging authorities to reopen the investigations.
Activists elsewhere, dismayed by a Kentucky grand jury’s decision not to charge any officers in the shooting death of 26-year-old Breonna Taylor, are pressing prosecutors to take a second look at other cases.
Some people with law enforcement experience think the nationwide push for police reform could lead prosecutors to acquiesce, if the pressure is great enough.
National Police Association spokesperson Betsy Brantner Smith said she worries that in the current climate, officers previously absolved of misconduct might end up facing criminal charges.
“This issue has been horrifically politicized, so I think it will greatly depend on the pressure politically in whatever particular jurisdiction we’re talking about,” Smith, a retired police sergeant, said.
Others see such campaigns as uphill battles.
Stanford University law professor David Alan Sklansky, a former federal prosecutor, said the killings of Floyd in May and Taylor in March may convince prosecutors to examine new cases more closely. But most “try to resolve individual cases on their merits and not in response to political pressure,” and therefore will be reluctant to revisit old ground without significant new evidence, Sklansky said.
Police protocols allow the use of deadly force when officers fear for their lives or the lives of others are threatened. Because criminal laws and juries often give great deference to police and the split-second decisions they have to make, families sometimes turn to civil courts to seek justice.
DJ Henry’s family reached a $6 million civil settlement in 2016. Henry’s father is still seeking the truth about what happened to his son, and Danroy Henry Sr. is not certain that’s something the Black Lives Matter movement’s momentum can deliver.
“I’m not hopeful, but I have hope,” the father said. “We have to keep working in the space that hope creates for these things to be possible, but I don’t trust people’s words any more. I want to see action. I’m waiting for somebody to act. They can, and they should.”
These are three of the cases prosecutors have been asked to reexamine:
Marcus-David Peters was a popular high school biology teacher and mentor to his students when he appeared to emotionally unravel on May 14, 2018, on Interstate 95 in Richmond, Virginia. An officer’s body camera captured it on video.
The footage begins trained on Peters’ car. He’d side-swiped several other vehicles and then crashed into brush in a grassy area next to a highway ramp.
“Male seems to be mentally unstable as we speak,” Officer Michael Nyantakyi said over his police radio while recording the scene.
The video next shows Peters, 24, climb out of his car - naked - and run into heavy rush hour traffic. He is hit by a vehicle, immediately gets up and then lies back down on the interstate, rolling around and flailing his arms and legs. At one point, Peters looks like he is making snow angels.
Nyantakyi pointed a stun gun at him. Peter ran toward toward the police officer, shouting and threatening to kill him. The officer, who is also Black, deployed the stun gun, which appeared to have no effect, then shot Peters with his service weapon.
Peters died later at a hospital. A prosecutor cleared Nyantakyi three months later.
“A reasonable officer in this scenario would have believed that Peters was capable of overcoming the officer, taking control of the firearm and using it to harm the officer and others,” former Commonwealth’s Attorney Michael Herring wrote in his report.
Peters’ sister, Princess Blanding, says Nyantakyi should not have used lethal force on someone who was obviously in the throes of a mental health crisis.
“Marcus needed help, not death,” Blanding said.
Since her brother’s death, Blanding has lobbied for multiple proposed police reforms, including state legislation that would establish an alert system to dispatch teams of mental health professionals, along with police in a backup role, to help stabilize individuals in crisis.
The Peters family and local activists have made the case a focal point of protests over the past five months, calling on Richmond’s current top prosecutor, Commonwealth’s Attorney Colette McEachin, to reopen the investigation.
McEachin met with Blanding and other family members and agreed to review the case file, but said that does not necessarily mean she will restart the investigation.
DANROY “DJ” HENRY JR.
Pace University student DJ Henry had barely started his adult life on the day it ended, Oct. 17, 2010, after a police officer in a hamlet 30 miles north of New York City asked him to move his car out of a fire lane.
Henry was a 20-year-old football player at Pace who had ambitions to play professionally. If that didn’t work out, he was thinking about becoming a sports agent or a journalist, his father said.
After the university’s homecoming game, the student athlete and some friends went to Finnegan’s Grill, a popular hangout located in a Thornwood shopping center. They left when a fight broke out among some other patrons.
Police from two local departments responded to the fight. After a Mount Pleasant officer asked Henry to move his Nissan Altima, he pulled out of the fire lane, across the parking lot and onto an access road leading away from the bar.
That’s when another officer, from neighboring Pleasantville, stepped in front of the car and ended up on the hood. Officer Aaron Hess fired four gunshots through the windshield, killing Henry and wounding one of his friends.
Hess has said he believed Henry was trying to run him over and that he shot through the windshield to stop him. A Westchester County grand jury cleared the officer of wrongdoing in 2011. Federal prosecutors decided four years later not to bring civil rights charges, saying the evidence did not show Hess had “acted with deliberate and specific intent.”
But conflicting information about the night’s events has emerged in 10 years, and Henry’s case, like others, has received renewed scrutiny in recent months.
Jay-Z, Rihanna, Kerry Washington and other celebrities asked the U.S. Department of Justice in July to investigate. In a letter to Attorney General William Barr, they said authorities had provided “absolutely no good explanation” for why the student was killed.
A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment. A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York did not return a call seeking comment.
Henry’s father questions if the grand jury heard all the relevant evidence. Pleasantville police initially claimed that Henry drove aggressively toward Hess and Mt. Pleasant Officer Ronald Beckley. But during a deposition for the Henry family’s wrongful death lawsuit a year after the grand jury’s decision, Beckley gave a different account.
Beckley reported having fired his own gun at Hess, whom he did not know as a fellow cop and took for “the aggressor” when he saw him on the hood of Henry’s car. He said he told his superiors that the night Henry was killed.
The Henry family feels like the case had a dishonest ending based on “this false narrative they’ve had to apologize for,” Danroy Henry Sr. said. He said he wants to “at least have a fair presentation of the truth to a real grand jury who can hear the truth and then draw the conclusions they choose to draw.”
DERRICK ELLIOT SCOTT
Vickey Scott said she screamed and fell to the floor the first time she watched a video of her son moaning and telling police “I can’t breathe” over and over while pinned to the ground.
“Every single day of my life, I am hoping and praying that those officers are charged with my son’s death,” the mother said.
Her son, Derrick Elliot Scott, died in Oklahoma City on May 20, 2019, almost one year before George Floyd used those words with a police officer’s knee pressed on his neck, and five years after Eric Garner did while a New York City officer had him in a chokehold.
In Scott’s case, it took police more than a year to release the body-camera video.
Police encountered Scott after a 911 caller reported seeing a man brandishing a gun while arguing with another man in a parking lot. Scott, 41, matched the description of the suspect.
The video begins with two officers approaching Scott as one asks if he has any weapons. Scott runs. The officers give chase and tackle him to the ground.
As the officers try to put handcuffs on Scott, he struggles and repeatedly says, “I can’t breathe.”
“I don’t care,” one officer can be heard saying. An officer is then heard calling for paramedics.
After a third officer arrives, he is shown pulling a handgun out of a pocket of Scott’s pants. Police said it was loaded.
Scott, who appears to go in and out of consciousness, died later at a hospital.
An autopsy listed the probable cause of death as a collapsed lung and said several conditions likely contributed, including physical restraint, recent methamphetamine use, asthma, emphysema and heart disease.
Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater cleared the officers of misconduct and any criminal wrongdoing. Prater said this week that he is not inclined to reopen the investigation at this point.
“Public sentiment doesn’t sway me. My job is not to make people happy; it’s to follow the law,” Prater told The Associated Press. “If there’s any competent evidence, I’ll certainly take a look at it.”
Prater has brought criminal charges against police officers in at least three other deaths, including a second-degree murder charge against a sergeant who was convicted in the shooting death of an unarmed, suicidal man, and first-degree manslaughter against a captain who shot an unarmed teenager in the back after a high-speed chase.