Why Did it Take a Lawyer to Find Key Facts in a Fatal Shooting by D.C. Police?

Friday, May 1, 2009

WHERE IS the gun? Of all the questions surrounding the fatal shooting of DeOnté Rawlings, that is the most vexing. The off-duty D.C. police officer who killed 14-year-old DeOnté said he did so in self-defense, and evidence shows that Officer James Haskel was indeed fired at. But the gun used against him was never found. What, then, to make of new information that a youth spotted the next day riding the minibike that started the tragic chain of events had a gun? Or that the youth was described as close in age to DeOnté and, like him, black? Or that the existence of this gun never made its way into the police report about the bike's recovery?

The story goes back to Sept. 17, 2007, when Mr. Haskel was told a minibike had been stolen from the garage of his home in Southeast Washington. With another off-duty officer, he set off to look for the bike in his neighborhood; the fatal encounter occurred shortly thereafter. The next day, Mr. Haskel's longtime friend, Bobby E. McNair, and two other people found the minibike. As Mr. McNair explained in a deposition taken March 6 as part of a civil lawsuit brought by DeOnté's family, he recognized the bike when he happened to be in Southeast and saw it being ridden by a "guy . . . maybe 15 to 17."

This much has been recounted before. But Mr. McNair's bombshell that "a gun fell off the bike" stunned the Rawlings family's attorney, Gregory L. Lattimer, as he took the deposition. "Wait a minute. Let me back up. Did you say a gun fell off his bike?" Mr. Lattimer asked. Mr. McNair clarified that, in fact, the gun -- "Black. Dark. Black." -- fell out of the youth's pocket, that the youth picked it up and walked off. Mr. McNair said he told all this to the police officer who interviewed him and later to the police internal affairs division. The police report, dated Sept. 20, 2007, makes no mention of a gun.

Perhaps authorities did follow up. Perhaps there is a plausible explanation about this youth's involvement in this case. Or perhaps there is something to Mr. Lattimer's theory of the case: that someone other than DeOnté stole the bike, that someone else fired at the officers and that DeOnté was targeted in error. Despite a seven-month investigation by the U.S. attorney's office and promises of accountability and transparency (long since broken) from Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, the public still has no clear understanding of what happened that night in an alley in Southeast. The officers were cleared of criminal wrongdoing, but questions persist about their conduct, some aspects of which have been acknowledged to be inconsistent with proper police procedure.

What information has been made available has come through the discovery process in the $100 million lawsuit against the city and two officers. It is only through the depositions taken by Mr. Lattimer that we know about Mr. Haskel's involvement in two previous shootings, the initial propensity of police officials to clear the officers for immediate return to active duty, the strange circumstances of the minibike's recovery and the decision of the two officers to leave the scene without securing evidence. City officials are critical of Mr. Lattimer for what they see as his trying his case in public. No doubt Mr. Lattimer and his clients stand to gain financially if they win their lawsuit. But Mr. Lattimer's motives and his revelations would be irrelevant if Mr. Fenty had honored his promise: to give the public the facts of how DeOnté Rawlings died.

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