Trial Begins for White Officers Accused of Killing Black Motorist
PITTSBURGH (AP) _ Police say race wasn’t the issue when black motorist Jonny Gammage was pulled over after leaving a Pittsburgh suburb where whites outnumber blacks 700 to 1.
But Gammage ended up dead _ the victim of police brutality, say civil rights activists. Today, two of the three white officers charged in his death went on trial in a case the activists believe will stand as a judgment of police use of force on blacks.
``I do think this is bigger than just Jonny Gammage,″ said Eugene Beard, a board member of Pittsburgh’s National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
``A lot of people are watching this case, and a lot of people are tense about this case. It would be another slap in the face to African-Americans if these guys get off.″
Jury selection began today in the trial of Brentwood Lt. Milton Mulholland and Baldwin Officer Michael Albert, charged with involuntary manslaughter in Gammage’s death. Brentwood Officer John Vojtas is being tried separately because of a difference in his defense strategy.
Although the trial will take place in Pittsburgh, jurors are being chosen in West Chester, outside Philadelphia, because of pretrial publicity. About 150 prospective jurors met this morning to be quizzed by lawyers in the case.
Police testified that they stopped Gammage last Oct. 12 after seeing him driving erratically in a 1988 Jaguar that belonged to his cousin, Pittsburgh Steelers’ defensive end Ray Seals.
The officers said they tried to restrain Gammage with blows from flashlights and pressure from batons. An autopsy later revealed Gammage, who lived in Syracuse, N.Y., suffocated from compression of his neck and chest.
The Gammage case draws some parallels to that of black motorist Rodney King, whose 1991 videotaped arrest led to brutality charges against four white Los Angeles officers. The four were acquitted in a verdict that touched off three days of deadly riots. Two officers were later convicted of federal civil rights charges.
A coroners jury had recommended homicide charges against the five officers involved, but prosecutors, citing ``razor-thin evidence,″ opted for lesser manslaughter charges against three of the officers.
Jurors will have to decide whether the officers were reckless or negligent in subduing Gammage and whether they used unreasonable force. If convicted, they could face up to five years in prison.
Supporters of the officers say Gammage made threatening gestures and say Gammage supporters are using the case to further other agendas.
``It is not ... the case of racial oppression and hatred that the liberal news media and political action groups would have the public believe,″ Brentwood Police Lt. Frank Caputo said in a letter sent to police nationwide to raise funds for the defense.
Protests against the officers have been loud, yet orderly, so far. Black leaders say it is unlikely, but not impossible, that acquittals would lead to violence in Pittsburgh, where about 26 percent of the 370,000 residents are black.
``When people get enraged and outraged, sometimes their leaders cannot hold them back. This might just be tinder for them,″ said the Rev. Willis Ludlow of the Community of Reconciliation.