The fatal police shooting of Danroy “DJ” Henry 10 years ago in a tony New York City suburb was quickly resolved by local investigators, who put out a press release describing the young Black man as the aggressor and the man who shot him as an officer fearing for his life.
But to many, the circumstances around the death of the 20-year-old Easton man after his college football team’s homecoming celebration never made sense.
A more complete story of his killing — with new details from witnesses — eventually emerged years later in a civil lawsuit brought by the family. And the new version of events painted a very different picture than that original police account, with sworn testimony suggesting that the police officer was the aggressor and recklessly fired at Henry.
“Nobody can say what Danny did wrong,” his father, Danroy Henry Sr., said in an interview with the Globe.
His case would go on to garner national attention, merit a mention in a song by Jay-Z and Kanye West, and prompt calls for justice from celebrities and civil rights leaders. The family settled its lawsuit for $6 million against the village of Pleasantville in 2017 and received an apology. But state and federal authorities have declined to bring charges and today the case remains the same as it was years ago – closed.
In recent weeks, amid a national examination of systemic racism within law enforcement, the case has gained renewed attention, with some of the biggest names in entertainment — including Beyoncé and Rihanna — writing a letter to US Attorney General William Barr asking investigators to re-examine the case with “full transparency.”
But experts say families and supporters — even in this current climate — still face massive political and legal hurdles, as well as ingrained institutional reluctance, in persuading officials to rethink questionable police killings of years past.
“Times are changing, but it’s a whole culture you’ve got to change,” said Robert M. Bloom, a Boston College law professor who specializes in criminal and civil procedure. “What you have is the police investigating their own, and the culture of police is such that they have everybody’s back.”
The recent calls to revisit old cases include the police killing of a teenager in New Bedford and the shooting of a mentally ill man in Boston after his mother called 911 for help. The pleas come from victims’ family members and advocates, politicians and civil rights groups, even celebrities. And perhaps no case from Massachusetts has garnered more attention in recent years than that of Henry.
“I think a lot of people are leaning into this moment,” his father told the Globe. “People are in the moment right now, they’re in the moment, and when people see opportunities to right injustices, whether historic or present time, people are leaning into it. And I’m thankful they’re using their voices for constructive action.”
The Henry family has called on state prosecutors to open a new investigation, based on the newly discovered evidence, or publicly disclose all the evidence that was presented to the state grand jury 10 years ago. Local prosecutors have refused.
Cases such as Henry’s can be reopened when new, impactful evidence emerges, such as accounts that conflict with the original police narrative of a case, said Daniel Medwed, a Northeastern University law professor who specializes in criminal law procedure.
Medwed also said that the national reckoning over police abuses could be enough to move a prosecutor to rethink a case in the context of the systemic oppression and racism that have long harmed Black and brown communities.
“We know a lot more about the phenomenon of police shootings, how ubiquitous across the country they are, and we know much more than we did a decade ago,” he said. “Grand jurors might be more open to understanding this phenomenon.”
In Henry’s case, “it could be a thumb on the scale to suggest that we should reopen it,” Medwed said.
The account of Henry’s killing is at once more complete and yet murkier than it was 10 years ago. On Oct. 17, 2010, Mount Pleasant and other local police departments including Pleasantville responded to calls of an unruly crowd and disturbance at Finnegan’s Grill in the Thornwood section of town, where Pace University students had been celebrating the football team’s homecoming.
The narrative immediately issued by police supervisors went this way: An officer knocked on the driver’s side window of Henry’s Nissan Altima, which was parked in a fire lane. Henry drove off in spite of calls for him to stop. Aaron Hess, the police officer, attempted to stop the car and was thrown onto the hood; fearing for his life, he held on to the car and shot four times through the windshield, killing Henry and injuring one of his passengers.
After prosecutors refused months later to bring charges against Hess, the Henry family filed a civil lawsuit. Protracted court battles and independent investigations ultimately shed new light on the police account: A passenger in the car had told investigators that he and Henry thought the officers wanted them to move the car from the fire lane, and when they did, Hess jumped in front of the car. The car was moving about 8 miles per hour, according to analysts who testified in the civil suit, far slower than the 25 miles per hour or so that police officials initially claimed.
Other witnesses said in sworn depositions that Hess actually stepped in front of the car – and may have fired his weapon – before he ended up on the hood.
Another officer, Ronald Beckley, said under oath that he thought Hess was the aggressor, to the point Beckley fired his gun at Hess, not realizing he was a police officer. Beckley said in a deposition that his account of the shooting was distorted by a colleague in the initial police reports.
The Henry family’s lawyer, Michael Sussman, said that the civil lawsuit exposed a series of accounts that contradicted the initial police reports. But because grand jury proceedings are secretive, very few people know whether Beckley or any of this evidence was ever presented.
“I don’t think the grand jury heard that, in any form,” he said in a recent interview. “We have a lot more information now about everything than we did back then, and it creates a problem for the truth-telling process.”
Hess was later found responsible in a federal civil suit of violating the civil rights of the occupants of Henry’s car. He retired from the police department on disability and later worked as a security consultant.
Hess’s attorney, Brian Sokoloff, scoffed at the notion that he should be criminally prosecuted, saying the outcome of a civil trial with lower standards of proof is far different than calling someone a murderer. He said the matter has been fully investigated, and “there’s no new evidence here.”
“It was a tragedy for all involved, including Mr. Henry, including the Henry family,” he said. “And it was a tragedy for Officer Hess as well.”
Anthony A. Scarpino Jr., the district attorney for Westchester County in New York, said through a spokeswoman that the Henry case can only be reopened if new evidence is discovered and that “no one from the Henry family or their attorneys have contacted our office directly regarding evidence in the death of DJ Henry.” He noted that a grand jury declined to bring state charges in 2010, and that federal investigators similarly declined to file any charges after an investigation in 2015.
Henry’s father acknowledged the family has not officially submitted a formal letter to the current district attorney, but he said the new evidence is well known.
“All we’re asking for is a fair prosecution, based on real evidence,” Henry said. “If they’re paying attention, they see the new evidence.”
New York passed a law five years after Henry’s killing that would allow for the state’s attorney general to serve as an independent prosecutor to review police shootings. Massachusetts legislators are currently looking at doing the same.
Legal analysts said that prosecutors have the power to revisit old cases, particularly those involving deaths, in spite of the challenges.
“It’s the political will,” said Tracey Maclin, a law professor at Boston University. “Do they see this as something worth their while?”