It’s been four years since a college student from Easton was shot to death by a New York police officer. Since then, Trayvon Martin was killed by a neighborhood watch volunteer and Michael Brown was killed by a policeman. The controversial killings of these young black men have sparked community outrage and scrutiny of the behavior of law enforcement. For the family of Danroy “DJ” Henry Jr., they still wait for the legal process to play out — but they’re also finding ways to remember their son.
This Wednesday would have been DJ Henry’s 25th birthday. The Boston NAACP says that day they will send a letter to the organization’s national members asking them to press the Justice Department for a full and complete investigation into the Henry shooting.
For all the heartache, for all the lingering questions, this was a night to celebrate DJ Henry’s life, shaped by a love of sports.
“We just ask that you think about tonight, not as giving us money, but as helping children who would love to say yes say yes,” said DJ’s father, Dan Henry. “These young children, their biggest need is to remain children.”
Dan Henry told an audience of 400 at the fourth annual DJ Henry Dream Fund that he could not think of a better way to remember his son than by helping others succeed.
One of those helped is Quincy Omari Picket.
“My mom heard about it and she went and signed up, and I got a scholarship,” said the 10-year old from Brockton. “I was happy. I was surprised. I lost 30 pounds. I lost all that weight. I tried on my suit and didn’t have to buy a new one.”
As DJ’s life was remembered at the annual fundraiser, his death is still hard to reconcile. Henry played football for Pace University in New York. After a homecoming game on Oct. 16, 2010, he and several friends went to a bar to celebrate. DJ was the designated driver. So when the bar closed, he went to get the car.
Idling in a fire lane, he was told by a cop to move on, according to witnesses. He did. What happened next is as unsettling today as it was four years ago.
Police alleged that Henry tried to run over a policeman, Aaron Hess, who leaped on the hood and fired through the windshield.
“Since then we’ve learned that almost every part of that account is false,” said attorney Michael Sussman, who represents the Henry family in a wrongful-death civil lawsuit that’s currently stalled in federal court in New York. “Police chief [Louis] Alagno, from the Mt. Pleasant Police agency, spoke publicly and made it appear that DJ Henry was driving his vehicle at a high rate of speed toward two officers who therefore fired at his car, and him, presumably, and shot him to death.”
Sussman says depositions taken in the federal civil law suit contradict the police’s story.
“DJ Henry was going at no more than 7 to 10 miles per hour and probably closer to 7 miles per hour,” he said. “He had attempted to break when he currently saw Mr. Hess in the roadway, and rather than evade the vehicle, with a weapon drawn, he jumped on the hood of the vehicle and immediately began shooting.”
Shots indeed were fired with bullets coming from the guns of two different police officers. Hess and an officer named Ronald Beckley.
“Mr. Beckley has given sworn testimony that he was shooting at Mr. Hess, whom he viewed as quote ‘an aggressor,’ not at Mr. Henry, and was in fact attempting to kill Mr. Hess because he viewed him as aggressing against a civilian,” Sussman said. “At the time he was shooting, he, Mr. Beckley, did not know that Mr. Hess was a police officer.”
But Beckley’s account was never made public by former police chief Louis Alagno. Four years after the killing of DJ Henry, his family is concerned that the Westchester County District Attorney’s Office only revealed to a grand jury what they wanted it to hear.
“Ronald Beckley told his superiors that night what he did,” Dan Henry said. “And has maintained that truth from that point forward, indicating that he was only attempting to protect DJ from what he thought was the only threat being presented. That was Aaron Hess shooting at DJ and DJ’s passengers. That was known that evening but was suppressed.”
Lawyer Brian Sokoloff represents Hess in the civil suit.
“What I can tell you is there is forensic evidence and we have a process in this country in which acts are determined by admissible evidence put before juries,” Sokoloff said. “I do not intend to litigate this case or to discuss the evidence in media because it’s not fair to everybody.”
A grand jury cleared Hess of any wrongdoing. But the lawyer for the Henrys says jurors might have come to a different conclusion, if they knew what we know today as a result of depositions in the civil case.
What has been the U.S. Department of Justice’s role in all of this? Sussman says the family met with 12 officials for the New York U.S. Attorney’s Office and with the official who is coordinating Justice’s inquiry into the police shooting of Brown in Ferguson, Mo.
U.S. Rep. Joseph Kennedy, at the Saturday-night gala in DJ’s honor, pointed out that he was among the signers of a letter from the Massachusetts delegation in recent months to Attorney General Eric Holder asking him to take a closer look at the DJ Henry case.
Since the death of Henry, Alagno, in federal depositions, admitted that he did not tell the truth about Beckley’s role. Four years since the killing of DJ Henry, Hess has retired from the Mt. Pleasant Police Department, and is now working at a fitness center.
“His life will never be the same again,” Sokoloff said. “This incident took away from him what he loved most in the world — being a police officer.”
And in the four years since the killing of DJ Henry, the DJ Dream Fund has helped 6,500 kids go to summer camp, buy uniforms, and take dance and tennis lessons, among other causes. Organizers have given out more than $250,000 in scholarships to children statewide, raised from large corporations and small individuals like 10-year-old Jack Butera.
“After I heard about DJ and everything that happened, I really felt bad for the Henry family, so I really wanted to help out with that,” Butera said. “I told my school about it and they let me do a can drive. And at the end, when we had a bunch of cans, we traded them in at Stop and Shop for money and then we donated it to the Dream Fund.”
“DJ often was the DJ Dream Fund before he knew it,” said Angella Henry, DJ’s mother. “He was giving shoes away and a shirt to someone that needed it, pads and things like that. So the DJ Dream Fund is just a continuation of that, and we love watching the children that we’re sponsoring and helping them just be able to just to be kids, and say yes to things they may not have been able to do before.”
Angella Henry says it’s their way of turning poison into medicine.
article by Phillip Martin via wgbh.org