Trial begins for police accused of killing off-duty officer

Tuesday, November 8, 2005

Monday marked the beginning of the long-awaited trial stemming from the death of Sgt. Cornel Young Jr., a Providence Police Depart-ment officer who was mistakenly fired at and killed by two of his colleagues during a civilian altercation in January 2000.

Young, who is black, reportedly had his firearm in hand when he tried to intervene in a dispute between customers outside an Atwells Avenue restaurant. The officers, who were white, said they didn’t recognize Young, who was off duty at the time, and mistook him for a suspect. After both officers were acquitted of criminal charges in Young’s death, Leisa Young, the victim’s mother, brought a $20 million civil rights and wrongful death lawsuit against the city of Providence and police supervisors.

The Young case first went to trial two years ago, but in November 2003 U.S. District Judge Mary Lisi dismissed Leisa Young’s charges against Providence and the police supervisors. The 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston restored a portion of the lawsuit, stating, “We think, in short, that the jury could find that the department knew that a friendly-fire shooting in violation of the Fourth Amendment was a predictable consequence of (the PPD’s) failure to train on on-duty/off-duty interactions, and therefore that the department was deliberately indifferent to Cornel’s constitutional rights.”

The main issues addressed in the trial will be whether the city adequately trained its police officers to identify off-duty officers and if Young’s constitutional rights were violated, according to a Nov. 4 article in the Providence Journal. On Thursday, the plaintiff’s lawyers agreed to drop charges against former Police Chief Urbano Prignano Jr. and two other police supervisors, making Providence the sole defendant in the case.

The defense will present evidence of the training given to the three officers involved in the shooting, said Kevin McHugh, Senior Assistant City Solicitor. Those who ran the training academy and taught and supervised officers will also testify, McHugh said.

When the case first came to trial in 2003, James Fyfe, the New York City Police Department’s deputy commissioner for training, testified that the officers who killed Young did not abide by widely accepted police protocol before shooting. Fyfe, however, will be unable to testify in the coming weeks due to severe illness, preventing defense attorneys from completing their cross-examination.

Young’s killing fueled debate about race relations among officers and between Providence residents and the department. “I think a lot of this (trial) will be about race. He was mistaken for a black person that was a suspect, and that partly had to do with the way he was dressed,” said Mary Kay Harris, a community organizer for Direct Action for Rights and Equality, which describes itself as a grassroots community organization formed to help low-income families of color win social, political and economic justice.

But Harris said analyzing the racial implications of the shooting is secondary to providing closure for Young’s family and bringing the people responsible for Young’s death to justice.

“DARE never said race had anything to do with it,” Harris said. “(At this point), I would like for Ms. Young and so many others to understand exactly what happened that night and still find a way to fix it … it’s not just an accident because it could have been different.”

The 2000 shooting has also brought issues of police brutality, injustice and civilian oversight of the department to the forefront of public discourse. In part as a response to the case, the Providence External Review Authority was established in 2002 as a civilian oversight agency to hear complaints against the Providence Police Department.

If the city of Providence is found guilty, it will likely have to compensate for Young’s estate, McHugh said. He estimated that the trial will last around a month.

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