U.S. Deputy Marshall William Cannon was cleared by a Queens, NY grand jury this week (3/4) in the shooting of 17 year-old high school student Andre Burgess. Burgess, captain of the soccer team at Hillcrest High School, was walking through his own neighborhood on 138th street in Laurelton, Queens (an officially determined "high-intensity drug trafficking area") on November 6 of last year, when an unmarked car carrying four federal agents rolled through. Cannon, who reportedly mistook a silver-wrappered Three Musketeers candy bar for a gun, jumped from the car and shot the teen once in the back of the leg.
According to Burgess, Cannon did not identify himself and gave the teen no time to react. "I turned to see what was up," Burgess told the New York Daily News at the time, "and boom, I'm hit, and I fell to the ground." Burgess was then handcuffed while lying on the ground, bleeding, until an ambulance arrived. Internal investigations by the U.S. Marshals Service and Dept. of Justice are still ongoing.
In reporting on the Burgess case, The Week Online spoke with Andre Burgess' Attorney, Robert Godosky:
WOL: Andre Burgess is a 17 year-old African American kid living in a black neighborhood. What is your take on the significance of that fact in light of what happened?
RG: Well, what I'd like to think, and perhaps it's naïve, but what I'd like to believe is that Agent Cannon simply had a quick trigger. My gut tells me, however, that with officers working in poor, predominantly minority neighborhoods, where they're pressing down on drug trafficking, there's an underlying reaction that the people there are all suspect.
Also, you need to ask yourself whether this type of behavior by law enforcement is acceptable in those areas, where it clearly wouldn't be in an area like Wall Street, although there are certainly a lot of drugs there as well. We're not running street sweeps on Wall Street. But a black kid in Laurelton, Queens, in his own neighborhood, is holding a candy bar, and he gets shot by an officer of the law. But if our investigation does reveal that there was a racial bias in this particular case, by this particular officer, I've told Andre that we'll pursue that.
WOL: Is it safe to assume that you're disappointed in the Grand Jury for failing to indict?
RG: What we're really disappointed in is Richard Brown's (Queens D.A.) inability to get an indictment. It's easy for the D.A. to lay the blame on the grand jury, but the D.A. has a lot of control over what goes on in that process. They couldn't even get a reckless endangerment charge? C'mon. They simply didn't want an indictment... they didn't even try. And now we're sitting here listening to the D.A. talk about how this was an "unfortunate occurrence"? Every shooting is an unfortunate occurrence. Was there any reasonable justification for Agent Cannon's actions? No. The guidelines that he used in deciding to fire his weapon were not objectively reasonable by the standards of any law enforcement agent anywhere.
Andre was unarmed, shot in the back of the leg. He was doing nothing wrong. And Agent Cannon didn't even identify himself. That is certainly both unwarranted and unreasonable. The failure to indict here sends a message to any law enforcement agent working in Queens, perhaps especially in poor, minority neighborhoods in Queens, that it is okay to shoot first and ask questions later.
WOL: What were the Federal Marshals doing in the area in the first place?
RG: Well, according to the Marshals' office, they were looking for a suspect on a warrant from 1982. Andre was two years old in 1982, so they certainly couldn't have mistaken him for the guy they were after.
WOL: The Justice Department is still investigating the case. Being that it is a federal investigation of a federal officer, are you concerned that the outcome could be the same as the local investigation?
RG: Well, of course you have something of an inherent conflict, with the Justice Department charged with upholding the civil rights of citizens, and, in this case, a federal officer being investigated. Zachary Carter is the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District, and it's his role to proceed zealously in this matter. If necessary, we could ask for a special prosecutor, but I doubt that enough of a conflict would be found here to justify such an appointment.
If justice isn't done on the criminal side, we'll be left to seek compensation in a civil case. People complain all the time about the civil process, but often it turns out to be the only avenue for an individual to get some measure of justice.
WOL: And how is Andre, both physically and emotionally?
RG: Well, physically, he's recovering. He's still undergoing physical therapy, but he's determined to try to resume his soccer career next year at the college level. Andre was extraordinarily lucky. The bullet entered the back of his thigh and exited the front, all without hitting either the bone or the artery.
Emotionally, this has been horrifying for him. That neighborhood is his home. With everything that he might already have to worry about there, is it right that he should now be afraid that he'll be shot at by an officer of the law? This is a good kid. Captain of his soccer team, headed for college. His mom's an extremely hard-working woman. Andre's only crime is that he lived in the wrong neighborhood. In our societal quest to crack down on these communities, are citizens now less entitled to the service and protection of the police based on where they live?