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2010 killing by police still haunts parents

Mass. lawmakers press for action

The family of slain Pace University student Danroy “DJ” Henry Jr. from Easton, has formally filed a lawsuit against the police officer who fired the fatal bullets and his department.
The family of slain Pace University student Danroy “DJ” Henry Jr. from Easton, has formally filed a lawsuit against the police officer who fired the fatal bullets and his department.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff/Boston Globe

It has been more than four years since an Easton college student was shot by a New York police officer, and nearly as long since a grand jury chose not to indict the officers involved, prompting a federal inquiry.

In that time, the deaths of several other young black men around the country sparked a national debate about race and policing.

But Danroy “DJ” Henry Jr.’s parents have not joined the marches. Their demands have played out in the halls of justice, not the streets. “Our life has literally been a life of protest since we lost our son,” Danroy Henry Sr. said last week.

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Members of the Massachusetts congressional delegation have joined the fight. Frustrated by the apparent inertia of the federal investigation, they have begun applying pressure to the Department of Justice, writing letters, asking for a full briefing, and inviting the Henrys to attend President Obama’s State of the Union address.

“As a government office, we should be trying to throw the weight of our office behind this to try and get those answers,” said US Representative Joseph Kennedy III, whose district includes the community where Henry’s parents, Danroy Sr. and Angella Henry, live.

According to a December letter to the US attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York signed by Kennedy and Representatives Stephen Lynch and Katherine Clark and Senators Elizabeth Warren and Edward J. Markey: “We believe a federal review of the case is critical in order to identify any civil rights or due process violations that may have occurred.”

Lynch said the young man’s family is anguished by his death and simply seeking answers.

“They have also pointed out some circumstances and inconsistencies that really call into question the events of that evening when their son was shot by that police officer,” he said.

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The family filed a wrongful-death civil suit, and witnesses, who testified under oath during depositions, provided an account of what happened that October 2010 night that includes information not part of the official police account. According to that testimony, the chief of police failed to disclose that a veteran officer believed that Henry — rather than the police officer who shot him — was the one under attack.

On Oct. 17, 2010, police responded to a bar at a Mount Pleasant, N.Y., shopping center where students had gathered after the homecoming game between Pace University and Stonehill College. Henry, a 20-year-old junior and member of the Pace football team, and several friends, were at the bar when a skirmish among some other patrons broke out and the owners ordered everybody out, according to police reports published on the website of the family’s attorney.

Henry went to his car and was idling in the fire lane when a police officer told him to move, the documents say.

Exactly what happened next remains a point of contention, but the result was that Officer Aaron Hess ended up on the hood of the car, shooting through the windshield. Henry was killed, and his friend Brandon Cox was wounded.

At the time, police said Henry sped off, and Hess tried to stop him. Hess was hit by the car and thrown on the hood, firing because he feared for his life, police said. As the car — with Hess on the hood — came barreling down the roadway, Officer Ronald Beckley started shooting at the car because he too feared for his life, police reports said.

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But according to Beckley’s own testimony, given under oath during depositions, which were also published on the attorney’s website, he never feared for his life, and he started shooting because he thought the person on the hood — who he did not know was a police officer — was the attacker.

“I was shooting at the person that I thought was the aggressor and was inflicting deadly physical force on another,” Beckley said during the September 2012 deposition.

Hess, he said, “was mounting the vehicle as he was firing.”

Investigators did not interview Beckley, save for the short debriefing the night of the shooting — even after ballistics confirmed that the only bullet fired from his gun hit the hood of the car — in part because he was viewed as a possible suspect, the documents said.

A grand jury in February 2011 declined to indict the officers involved in the shooting. Hours later, the US Department of Justice announced its plans to review the case.

“If you can’t get an indictment or take this case, then when can you?” asked Danroy Henry Sr. But it has been nearly four years and there still has been no report or findings by the federal government.

“You would like to think one way or another that the criminal justice system would promptly come to a conclusion,” said Michael Sussman, the family’s attorney. Sussman said the evidence discovered as part of the civil suit was turned over to federal investigators.

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According to a Jan. 8 letter from the Justice Department, federal prosecutors are “actively evaluating the matter.” The letter also denied the delegation’s request for a briefing, something Lynch called “somewhat disappointing.”

But Hess’s attorney, Brian Sokoloff, called the delegation’s actions on the Henrys’ behalf inappropriate politicizing of a legal matter.

“This case is not and should never be a political issue,” Sokoloff said. “The United States Department of Justice exists to safeguard the rights of all Americans, including my client and that includes the right not to have your fate decided by politicians and other people who don’t know all the detailed evidence.”

As for Henry’s parents and siblings, they are working to make sure his legacy is as much about how he lived as how he died.

The family started a nonprofit that honors his love of sports by providing scholarships to young people.

“The waiting is hard for sure,” Henry’s father said. But, he added, “there’s a hopefulness in the waiting, too.”

The Justice Department, he said, has not said no to an indictment, so it could still say yes.

DJ's father, Dan, hugged his daughter as Dan's wife, Angela, spoke on the family’s front yard in 2011.
DJ's father, Dan, hugged his daughter as Dan's wife, Angela, spoke on the family’s front yard in 2011.John Tlumacki/globe staff/file 2011/Boston Globe

Akilah Johnson can be reached at ajohnson@globe.com.