Community divided on probe of police shooting

By Megan Tench a Nd Francie Latour, Globe Staff, 2/17/2002

Black ministers and community leaders said yesterday that they are pleased that a grand jury will investigate the sequence of events that led to the fatal shooting Tuesday of Willie L. Murray Jr. by a Boston police officer.

Officer Shawn West could face criminal charges in connection with the shooting, which allegedly followed an early-morning game of cat and mouse between Murray and police through the streets of Roxbury. Police said West fired his gun through the open window of Murray's car after it moved forward while he was being questioned by West.

''It's not as clear how the officer may have been in mortal danger that required the application of deadly force, particularly shooting the suspect in the head,'' said the Rev. Ray Hammond of the Ten Point Coalition in Jamaica Plain. ''I think under those circumstances, at the very least, deep and impartial investigation is warranted, and thorough investigation is warranted.''

Leonard Alkins, president of the local chapter of the NAACP, said that despite improved relations between city police and the black community in recent years, emotions are running high over the Murray shooting, and hopes for justice are guarded.

''There is one side who thinks nothing is going to happen and then there's another side who thinks justice will be served,'' Alkins said. ''We have to allow the process to work and wait and see what the grand jury does with the information that's given to them.''

But criminal justice specialists warn that only a small percentage of police officers are ever prosecuted for use of deadly force after a grand jury investigation.

''It's not rare to use the grand jury as a screening tool to decide whether to bring any criminal charge,'' said Bill Gellar, a specialist on police use of force, and author of ''Deadly Force: What We Know.''

''What is very rare is bringing up criminal charges for a police officer for shooting somebody. It is extremely rare for prosecutors to go after police on homicide charges for the taking of a life,'' he said.

Prosecutors must be able to prove that the officer had intentional or at least reckless disregard for the value of human life in order to press homicide charges, said Gellar. Even if there are viable witnesses and substantial evidence, it is difficult to prove the officer's intentions.

''It's very easy for police to claim they were in fear of their own life at the time they took the person's life,'' said Gellar, adding that there is a political reason for the lack of charges against police.

''Prosecutors are highly dependent on cooperation of police officers to make the majority of their cases day to day,'' Gellar said. ''No prosecutor would ever tell you that, faced with blatant police misconduct, they wouldn't do justice by going after the officer criminally. They have to be pretty sure because they are risking antagonizing the whole police apparatus on which they are dependent.''

The prosecution's sole witness in the shooting is an unidentified man who was sitting beside Murray in the front seat of his car when Murray was shot.

''The officer's hand was never in the car. The only thing he had in the car was the mouth of his gun,'' the passenger told the Globe on the condition of anonymity. ''I couldn't believe that cop fired, I couldn't believe he fired.''

The passenger said Murray was frightened because the police were tailing him for no apparent reason after the two men stopped at a gas station to buy a soft drink. A police cruiser began following Murray as he left the station and began a journey up and down the streets of Roxbury at 4 a.m.

The passenger also said that Murray told him he had a gun in his car, but the passenger said he never saw it and Murray never made any attempt to retrieve or hide it. Police said Murray was unarmed at the time of the shooting and would not comment yesterday about whether a search of Murray's car produced a weapon.

This story ran on page B3 of the Boston Globe on 2/17/2002.

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