US will review death of student

Jury did not indict any police officers involved in death

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By John M. Guilfoil
Globe Staff / February 15, 2011

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Hours after a New York State grand jury declined yesterday to indict any of the police officers involved in the fatal shooting of Pace University student Danroy “D.J.’’ Henry Jr., of Easton, the US Department of Justice announced plans to examine the case.

“Consistent with our practice in cases of this kind, the Department of Justice will review all of the available evidence with respect to the death of Danroy Henry Jr., including the evidence available to the Westchester County district attorney’s office, to determine whether there were any violations of the federal criminal civil rights laws,’’ said Ellen Davis, a spokeswoman for the US attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York.

Federal officials had been urged to review the case by Henry’s family, and Senator Scott Brown has called for a thorough investigation. The Justice Department, which had been monitoring the case, was awaiting the results of the state and local investigation before beginning its own.

Davis’s announcement followed a statement from Janet DiFiore, the Westchester, N.Y., district attorney, in which she said that after “due deliberation on the evidence presented in this matter, the grand jury found that there was no reasonable cause to vote an indictment.’’

The finding of “no true bill’’ indicates that the grand jury found no criminal wrongdoing by police who fatally shot Henry during the early morning hours of Oct. 17 outside a bar at a shopping center in Mount Pleasant, about 30 miles north of New York City.

The decision angered Henry’s family, whose members are pursuing a $120 million lawsuit against the Town of Mount Pleasant and Village of Pleasantville, N.Y.

“There are no words to express our disappointment in the grand jury’s decision,’’ Henry’s father, Danroy Henry Sr., said in a statement yesterday.

“Conclusions appear to have been drawn at the outset,’’ he said, “and the entire process appears now to have been nothing short of an attempt to create better optics for the DA and her office.’’

The district attorney said the grand jury, which began hearing testimony Jan. 10, had made “an exhaustive and thorough review of the evidence’’ that included appearances by 85 witnesses and more than 100 exhibits.

The Henry family members and their New York civil rights lawyer, Michael Sussman, have long questioned why local police were allowed to investigate a shooting by one of their own officers. The case has been investigated by New York State Police and local officers, along with the district attorney.

A lawyer for Pleasantville Officer Aaron Hess, who has acknowledged shooting at Henry, said that Henry was responsible for his own death and that Hess and his family were grateful for the grand jury’s decision.

“The loss of life that occurred that morning is regrettable and tragic, but any reasonable view of the evidence as to what took place that night demands recognition of the fact that Aaron Hess acted properly and D.J. Henry did not,’’ John K. Grant, Hess’s lawyer, said. “Sometimes the truth is painful, and in this case the painful truth is that D.J. Henry brought about his own death. Lost has been the fact that Aaron Hess too is a good and decent human being, who went to work that night to help keep his community safe.’’

Before that statement was issued, the elder Henry said: “This process is most analogous to a person committing a crime which their siblings investigate and for which their closest relatives determine their punishment. All the while the crime victim is left in the dark until the family decides how [to] handle the misdeed of their own.’’

During a fiery conference call with reporters shortly after the decision, Sussman also questioned the impartiality of the local district attorney, who works closely with local police.

Sussman said that the grand jury process is heavily weighted toward the prosecution and that indictments would have come down if prosecutors were truly seeking them.

“A district attorney can indict a ham sandwich,’’ Sussman said, quoting a 1985 New York appellate court judge’s comments on the grand jury process.

Speaking of police and prosecutors, he declared: “To say they rely on each other is to say that the fetus relies upon the mother.’’

Sussman called the shooting “an orgy of violence directed toward students.’’

Police responded to the bar where many students had gathered after the homecoming game between Pace and Stonehill College. Henry, 20, a junior, was shot after he hit two officers with his car after refusing to stop, police allege.

Conflicting reports have surfaced from witnesses, who have said Henry was trying to move his car at the request of a police officer. A police officer mounted the hood and fired repeatedly through the front windshield, killing Henry.

The elder Henry also accused prosecutors of softballing the grand jury, not aggressively pursuing an indictment against the officers who shot his son, who played on the Pace football team.

“We firmly believe that we have a good handle on what happened,’’ he said. “We never believed for a second that this district attorney was pursuing an indictment, so we already contemplated going around her, which is why we’re going to the Justice Department.’’

The officers involved in the shooting have taken criticism from police specialists, who have said that there is no training module in policing that involves jumping on a moving car and firing at the driver. In a notice of claim filed with both communities in December, Sussman alleged that police were improperly trained and unqualified to serve as armed officers.

While Sussman said he was confident the whole story will come out during the coming civil lawsuit, he said yesterday’s ruling was a reminder of racial inequity in the criminal justice system. Henry was black, and the officers who shot him are white.

“We have no lack of confidence in our ability, but the criminal justice system is supposed to be here for every American, and today is a sign that it’s not, regardless of who’s president of the United States,’’ Sussman said.

“To me, it sends a clear message to every parent of color who has a child away at college that they better be darn worried if something happens to them.’’

Bonita E. Zelman, a New York civil rights attorney lawyer representing five other Pace students, also criticized yesterday’s finding. “No citizen should accept a murder committed by anyone, certainly not a murder committed by a person sworn to protect the public good,’’ Henry’s father said.

Martin Finucane of the Globe staff contributed to this report. John M. Guilfoil can be reached at