Panel Recommends Homicide Charges Against Officers in Custody Death
PITTSBURGH (AP) _ A coroner’s jury ruled Friday that five white officers who arrested a cousin of Steelers defensive end Ray Seals should be charged with homicide because the man suffocated in police custody.
Jonny Gammage, who was black, died Oct. 12 after the officers pulled him over in the Pittsburgh suburb of Brentwood while Gammage was driving Seals’ 1988 Jaguar.
Officers said they had to sit on Gammage and beat him with flashlights to stop him from flailing after they pulled him over for driving erratically.
But Gammage’s supporters have said Gammage, who was 5-foot-7 and weighed 187 pounds, would never have attacked the officers.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson has called the death a ``lynching″ and the FBI is investigating.
District Attorney Robert Colville and Acting Coroner F. James Gregris can either accept or reject the jury’s recommendation. Colville said he will make his decision by the end of next week at the earliest.
In his instructions, Deputy Coroner Arthur Gilkes told the six jurors they could recommend homicide charges against one or more officers, charges of involuntary manslaughter or no charges at all.
He that if they believed officers did not have good reason to think Gammage had committed a felony or that their lives were in danger, they must recommend charges of criminal homicide.
Gammage, 31, ran Seals’ community relations programs and sports clothing business, best known for Steelers T-shirts that say ``60 Minute Men.″ They raised money to buy Thanksgiving dinners and Christmas toys for poor families last year.
Members of Gammage’s family burst into tears when they heard the jury’s recommendation, reached in 1 1/2 hours after a three-day hearing.
``It was a fair verdict. It’s just the first step to get to the bottom of it,″ Seals said.
Brentwood Police Chief Wayne Babish emphasized that the officers have not yet been charged, let alone convicted. ``I would ask that we try this case in the criminal justice system and not in the streets,″ Babish said.
Earlier Friday, a forensic pathologist testified that Gammage may have flailed and kicked simply because he could not breathe. ``He might have been trying to survive,″ Dr. Al Shakir said.
Shakir, who examined Gammage’s body about seven hours after his death, said the force of the officers pushing down on Gammage’s back as he lay face down on the pavement may have prevented him from breathing.
Shakir said he found 20 bruises, cuts and scrapes on Gammage’s body. He said there were several large bruises under the skin on Gammage’s upper back and around his neck.
Brentwood Officer John Vojtas testified earlier this week that he told Gammage to get out of the car because Gammage had refused to keep his right hand visible, leading the officer to suspect that he had a weapon.
Vojtas said he couldn’t see Gammage’s hand as he left the car, so he told Gammage to stand still. But Gammage kept coming, the officer said, so he pushed Gammage into the side of the car.
Officer Michael Albert testified he pressed down on Gammage’s shoulders and neck with a collapsible metal club as Gammage lay face down on the ground. He also stood and knelt on the back of Gammage’s neck.
Lt. Milton Mulholland testified that he and two other officers forced Gammage to the ground, but Gammage refused to lie still and struggled with all three of them. Two more officers arrived and joined the fray. Gammage died at the scene.