It’s happening again. An attorney stares at an autopsy photograph of a young black male taken down by gunfire. On the desk nearby sit FBI 302s, the code name for a written report of an investigator’s interview with a witness. The phone is ringing off the hook (remember the hooks?) with demands for justice, demands for punishment, demands for patience, demands for information, not necessarily in that order. Events of the past few weeks bring me back to a case I investigated in 1977 and teach me that, no matter how many similar tragedies we absorb as a nation, sadly nothing changes.
It’s dusk in a Houston neighborhood and two white police officers are in a squad car heading down a street, doing their job, and they encounter a sight that causes them concern. A young black man walks down the center of a busy street. He is not dressed in a business suit, and his walk is unsteady. The officers stop their squad car in front of the young man – the man’s name is Larry Milton Glover – in order to see what he’s up to and to get him out of the road, where he’s a danger to himself and to others. The driver opens his door, his hand reaching to his sidearm, and the strange black man reaches into his back pocket and starts to pull something out of his pocket. Larry says something like “I’ve got something for you.” The first officer, fearing for his life, pulls his gun and shoots at the dark object. Startled by the gun fire, the second officer, still in the car, pulls her weapon and shoots at Larry through the windshield of the police car. Startled by the gun fire, the first officer empties his revolver into Larry, squeezing off another five rounds within a couple of seconds. Larry is dead, and a bullet hole has been blown in the dark object that had been in his pocket … a Bible.
Thirty-five years have passed since these events, and I still ask myself whether justice was done. No federal charges were brought against the police officers after an investigation because federal civil rights laws require, as an element of a crime under 18 United States Code 242, that a defendant be shown to have had a specific intent to deprive a victim of his constitutional rights. Where does legitimate fear end and a desire to inflict pain, mayhem, and death begin? The answer is seldom as clear as we would like. The violent end of Larry Milton Glover’s life started the wheels of justice grinding slowly and inconclusively. The government prosecuted no one for his death, but that is not to say that the police officers involved were not punished. The mere fact that a federal grand jury was convened and asked to hear evidence about the shooting undoubtedly took its toll on their well-being, if not their careers. No one in his right mind wants to be on the trigger end of the gun.
I cannot comment about the specific case of Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman, except to note that similar events have occurred – seem to keep occurring – in which gunfire takes down a black, unarmed young man and fear for one’s life is cited as the justification or explanation. The line between justifiable fear and an evil intention can be fine indeed. With hand guns so prevalent in our society, who is not afraid? The Larry Milton Glovers of the world, the police officers who protect us, the young people of all races, and the neighborhood watch captains can tell you: no one.
From 1976 to 1980, the writer was a Trial Attorney in the Criminal Section of the Civil Rights Division, United States Department of Justice. His purely fictional story, “Specific Intent,” available on Kindle, relates a similar, tragic incident. http://www.amazon.com/Specific-Intent-ebook/dp/B006KJ1W1Q/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1333370083&sr=1-1