Review of DeOnté Rawlings Case Paints an Ambiguous Picture

By Cheryl W. Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 19, 2009

Near dusk one September evening in 2007, a boy cruises on a stolen, red, gas-powered minibike down an alley in Southeast's Highland Dwellings public housing complex. A gold Chevrolet Tahoe passes with two men inside, both off-duty D.C. police officers, both armed. The driver is determined to recover his bike. He slams the SUV into reverse and races backward in pursuit.

There is an exchange of gunfire. When it is over, a 14-year-old lies dying in the fading autumn light, a bullet hole in the back of his head.

The shooting of DeOnté Rawlings was one of the most controversial and emotional the city had seen in decades, and Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier publicly promised a thorough and open investigation. Their unusual stance, which included paying for the boy's funeral, brought political heat from the police union and the force.

But Fenty and Lanier were practically silent when the fatal shooting was declared justifiable last year by federal prosecutors and police officials who said the boy fired first at the officers.

Instead of being open, officials declined to release the details supporting their conclusions, saying their hands were tied by federal grand jury secrecy rules that ordinarily do not apply to local police shooting cases. The FBI and grand jury had been brought in to ensure an impartial investigation.

The lack of transparency left a host of unanswered questions throughout the city: If Rawlings fired, where was his gun? Why did the minibike vanish from the scene, then reappear days later? What evidence tied the boy to the shooting?

The Washington Post examined the Rawlings case, obtaining and analyzing previously undisclosed internal police reports, statements by officers at the scene and depositions from witnesses. Together, the documents present a much more ambiguous picture, revealing a chain of police missteps and oversights that invite questions about what happened that evening.

The officers involved in the shooting didn't identify themselves as police officers, didn't attend to the wounded suspect and fled the scene. All were violations of department policy.

By not securing the scene and the evidence, the off-duty officers made it impossible to conclusively determine whether Rawlings had fired a weapon. No gun was found even though uniformed police arrived within three minutes, and only seven seconds after the off-duty officers had left.

After the shooting, more mistakes occurred. One of the officers took a key piece of evidence with him -- driving off in the sport-utility vehicle, which a police investigator says was hit by a bullet. The officer who shot DeOnté, James Haskel, left the scene on foot, flagging down a nearby police cruiser. That officer drove Haskel to his mother's house and failed to question him or take notes about what happened.

Haskel also was allowed to make unmonitored phone calls, including at least one to the officer who accompanied him during the shooting, and was not questioned for two hours and 33 minutes.

Authorities tested Rawlings's clothing for lead residue and found none, police records show. No gunshot residue, soot or powder was found on his fingers or hands, according to the autopsy report.

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