Family of slain student files lawsuit

Says shooting by N.Y. police officer was reckless

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By David Abel and Milton J. Valencia
Globe Staff / April 21, 2011

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EASTON — The family of Danroy “D.J.’’ Henry Jr., the Pace University football player who was fatally shot by police in New York in the fall, has formally filed a lawsuit against the police officer who fired the fatal bullets.

The lawsuit, filed yesterday in US District Court in White Plains, N.Y., alleges that Pleasantville Police Officer Aaron Hess showed a “reckless disregard for human life.’’ The lawsuit alleges that Henry’s civil rights were violated and seeks unspecified compensatory and punitive damages.

Members of Henry’s family said they wanted to use the lawsuit to compel New York authorities to release evidence in the case, including audio and video recordings, as well as Hess’s testimony about the incident and his personnel file.

“We need the truth,’’ Henry’s sister, Amber, said at a news conference the family held yesterday at their home in Easton.

Henry’s brother, Kyle, said he would spend the rest of his life trying to find out what really happened the night his brother was killed.

“These people murdered an innocent, great person,’’ he said. “These are not good people.’’

Henry, a 20-year-old junior at the university in Pleasantville, was shot outside a bar in the early morning hours after a homecoming game celebration. Two officers fired, but it is believed that Hess fired the fatal shots.

Mayor Peter Scherer said the village would “vigorously defend’’ itself, as well as Hess.

“While we are sensitive and sympathetic to the Henry family’s loss, this lawsuit is not unexpected,’’ Scherer said in a statement. “However, we believe that it is without merit, and that neither the village nor Officer Aaron Hess violated any laws or rules of conduct.’’

He added: “We look forward to vindicating the village and Officer Aaron Hess, and to moving forward from this tragic event.’’

Authorities said Henry, who was driving a car, sped toward police who were responding to a melee at the bar, brushing one officer with a side-view mirror and heading directly at Hess. Police said at the time that Hess was forced onto the hood and fired to protect himself. He was thrown to the ground and, as a result, had to undergo knee surgery.

But some witnesses, including passengers of Henry’s car, said Henry drove away because an officer had ordered him to leave the fire lane. Before he could slow down, Hess jumped in front of the vehicle, onto the hood, and started firing, they said.

One witness, Brandon Cox, Henry’s lifelong friend and a passenger of the car, told authorities that Henry tried to slow down but did not have enough time. Cox was also grazed in the arm by a bullet.

Witnesses also described a chaotic scene after the shooting, with police officers pointing guns at people who tried to come to Henry’s aid. Four people were charged with interfering with police, but those charges were dropped.

Meanwhile, according to witness testimony, the wounded Henry was handcuffed and placed on the sidewalk, where he lay dying.

Local investigators convened a grand jury, but no indictments were handed up, outraging the Henry family.

On the day the local district attorney announced she would not bring charges in the case, the US Justice Department announced it would conduct its own investigation, because of the nature of the shooting and concerns over possible civil rights violations. Henry was black; the officers who fired are white.

Earlier this month, the union representing Hess named him its “Officer of the Year,’’ outraging the Henry family. The family pointed out that the award was given even while the shooting remains under investigation by the Justice Department.

“To say we’re disappointed by that is an understatement,’’ Danroy Henry, the victim’s father, said at the news conference. “One has to question why they would do that. It almost smacks of a level of arrogance that they are above the law.’’

Henry’s mother, Angella, said the family had been “overwhelmed by support from so many places.’’

Nearly all their neighbors had white balloons on their mailboxes yesterday, with Henry’s jersey number, 12, on them.

Asked about the amount of monetary damages the family is seeking, she said, “There’s no dollar amount that will fill that void.’’

David Abel can be reached at, Milton Valencia at