Two devastated families. One cleared former jail guard. A District Attorney whose commitment to “public safety” and “equal justice” is now in serious doubt.
On a Tuesday evening, March 10, 2015, 69-year-old, retired corrections officer Will Groomes shot and killed 32-year-old Gilbert Drogheo. The murder took place during rush hour in the Borough Hall subway station in downtown Brooklyn, New York. At least two bystanders captured the murder on cellphone videos.
One video shows Groomes walking down the station stairs to the subway platform with gun drawn. A bystander repeats: “Don’t shoot him! Don’t shoot him!” A slight man in his burgundy work shirt, Gilbert Drogheo, darts away on the platform. Groomes stops and heads back up the stairs and finds Gilbert nearby at a turnstile. Groomes towers over Gilbert as he punches Gilbert, who pushes Groomes away and appears to be struggling with him. Groomes then shoots Gilbert at point blank range in the chest. Screams and mayhem are caught on the video, as the person taking it (bravely) continues to record a few steps further back from the murder site.
“He hit him! He hit him!” says the same bystander, who might be the person recording the video. While Groomes and a uniformed police officer stand over Gilbert’s body, the bystander’s voice continues: “He ain’t got no gun. He ain’t got no gun. […] That nigga is the only one with a gun. He’s the only one with a gun.”
The shooter and ex-jail guard Groomes is black. Gilbert was Hispanic. Gilbert’s friend Joscelyn, who is seen in a white jacket at the end of the video hesitantly approaching the scene, is black.
The second video records the aftermath of the shooting. Groomes stands to the side, never in handcuffs, and if you listen very closely, you will hear Groomes tell the police “These two jumped a man on the train.” That is likely why you next see police handcuff Gilbert’s friend Joscelyn, as he is crouched on the ground near Gilbert, listening as Gilbert takes his last breath.
These videos do not lie – Groomes pursued, shot and killed unarmed Gilbert Drogheo – and they also portend what happened next. The police arrested Joscelyn, and he is being prosecuted on charges of assault, menacing, and four other related crimes. Groomes walked, never arrested, after remaining overnight in police custody. And on Monday, May 4, 2015 Brooklyn DA Ken Thompson announced he would press no charges against Groomes.
In a statement the DA’s Office explained that following “its full and fair investigation” of “interviews of multiple eyewitnesses to the events leading up to the shooting, [and ] review of videotapes of the shooting itself and other evidence” it “cannot prove any charge of homicide beyond a reasonable doubt.” (The statement did not address why manslaughter, reckless endangerment, assault or other criminal charges would definitively fail. Groomes, as a former jail guard, is permitted to carry a registered gun, so gun charges would likely fail.)
The DA's decision and explanation are both perplexing and disturbing. DA Thompson appears to be claiming that what happened before Groomes chased and shot an unarmed and nonthreatening man so conclusively entitled Groomes to kill that it is not worth convening a grand jury to consider whether a crime occurred.
According to the police and Groomes’ attorney, before the shooting, the ex-jail guard (and not another man, as Groomes had told the police at the murder scene) was verbally and physically attacked by Gilbert and Joscelyn on the six-minute subway ride from the last stop in Manhattan to Borough Hall station. They claim Groomes was “pushed into an empty seat” (on a rush hour train) and “injured his shoulder” during the encounter (although Groomes appears uninjured on video at Borough Hall station).
At the subway station, however, it is undeniable that Groomes was the aggressor. And New York law requires you to retreat – the opposite of what Groomes did – if indeed you are under attack.
According to Joscelyn, who spoke with me in early April 2015 (and claims not to have been interviewed by the DA’s Office), it was Gilbert and he that were, in fact, retreating – or rather escaping – from Groomes’ attacks on them during the ride into Brooklyn. I will leave the details of that ride for another post about Joscelyn and the charges against him. Suffice it to say that Borough Hall was not Joscelyn’s and Gilbert’s destination, but their escape route after Groomes, in that crowded subway car, took out his gun, loaded it, pointed it at Joscelyn and Gilbert and told them he was going to kill them.
Notwithstanding the DA’s statement, what happened or did not happen during the six-minute subway ride cannot erase – or justify – what we all see did happen at the subway station, thanks to bystanders’ videos: Groomes pursued Gilbert with loaded gun drawn, assaulted Gilbert, then killed him. That cannot not be a crime.
Unless you are in a protected class. There simply is no other explanation and will never be another explanation, unless the DA’s Office voluntarily – or under community or political pressure or legal compulsion – explains in greater detail why Groomes acted within the law. Will Groomes is black (as is DA Thompson), but is being treated like he is blue.
Unlike the killing of Eric Garner, the murder of Gilbert Drogheo has not gained much attention locally, much less nationally. This time, the killer of an unarmed person of color was neither white nor an active police officer, and the murder of Gilbert Drogheo does not fit neatly into the series of police killings that have galvanized the Black Lives Matter movement.
Nonetheless, Gilbert’s murder and its outcome demonstrate how deeply entrenched undeterred police violence is. Regardless of their race, law enforcement and DAs place officers above the law. A black man, Groomes acted with entitlement to kill because he was disrespected, and purportedly roughed up, and because he still carries a badge (which he apparently showed to responding police), 18 years after retiring as a corrections officer. The police and the DA shielded Groomes, even though he long ago retired from law enforcement, from arrest and prosecution, in clear violation of their public duties, and they arrested and are pursuing six charges against Gilbert’s friend Joscelyn instead.
To Groomes, the police, and DA Thompson, former officer Groomes’ pride matters at the expense of Gilbert’s and Joscelyn’s lives.
Written by M. J. Williams, an attorney and member of the collective NYC Shut It Down, which is active in the Black Lives Matter movement.