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  'I Did See a Gun'  
Continued from Page 4
    Sgt. Yezzi D.C. police Sgt. Christopher Yezzi, right, arrests a suspect during a sweep of alleged drug dealers in Columbia Heights. (File Photo/By Bill O'Leary – The Washington Post)
On May 26, 1994, four D.C officers from the 7th District made a traffic stop that turned into a foot chase and ended when Officer Christopher Jack Yezzi shot Maryland resident Dion Hinnant in the back, killing him.

Two days later, in the station's brick-walled basement, Officer Terrence McClain pulled aside his partner, Rodney Williams Jr., and loosed a string of obscenities. McClain thought the shooting by Yezzi was "messed up," Williams later told police investigators.

"It was a white man finally got a chance to shoot, shoot – well, shoot a nigger. That's what he said," Williams told internal affairs investigators in a taped interview 14 months later.

Yezzi said he fired to protect himself and his partners when Hinnant aimed a gun at them.

Over the next two years, three overlapping investigations by the police, the U.S. attorney's office and the department's Office of Internal Affairs would unearth conflicting physical evidence and changing statements by officers. In the end, no official action was taken and police declared the shooting justified. Yezzi, who has received numerous commendations, was subsequently promoted to sergeant and now serves in the 4th District.

Yezzi declined to comment, citing a pending lawsuit, but he said, "As far as I know, [there] was nothing questionable about the shooting." Taking a life "is certainly nothing anybody comes on this job to do," he said. "The people who make comments have never been in a shooting. A lot of things get taken out of context."

The shooting incident began at 7:05 p.m., according to police reports, as the last hour of sunlight slanted through the low-income Atlantic Terrace housing complex on Fourth Street SE. Plainclothes officers Yezzi, McClain, Williams and Seth Holmes patrolled in an unmarked 1979 Chevy Malibu. The officers had a sketchy, day-old tip that someone in a gold Acura was carrying drugs into the area.

When they spotted Hinnant's gold Acura, the officers tailed him and his 23-year-old passenger into a parking lot. Hinnant had been convicted a year earlier of a misdemeanor charge of carrying a pistol without a license and was still on probation. In the car with him was a loaded Colt .45-caliber pistol.

Police reports filed later that night by the four officers describe the next few seconds as a deftly choreographed display of law enforcement. McClain's first official account of the incident gave no indication that he questioned the legitimacy of the shooting.

Hinnant stepped out of the Acura, reached back inside for the gun, then took off running, according to the reports. Holmes dealt with the passenger while the three other officers chased Hinnant.

"I yelled 'Police!' and 'Drop the weapon!' several times," Yezzi said in his statement that night. Hinnant kept running, twisting his torso to the left, lifting his left arm and curling his right hand beneath it, so the gun was pointed at the officers, their reports state.

Yezzi again ordered him to stop, then fired. Hinnant dropped the gun, staggered "about four more steps and fell on his stomach," according to Yezzi's account. Yezzi said he "immediately ran a couple of feet up to where I saw the weapon drop, stood over it and secured the weapon."

Flown by helicopter to Washington Hospital Center, Hinnant was pronounced dead 3 1/2 hours later.

No drugs were found on or near Hinnant or in his car. His passenger told police that Hinnant was giving him a ride home from a pickup basketball game.

Homicide detectives opened an investigation that night, interviewing two witnesses who saw the incident from the housing complex courtyard. Neither corroborated the police account. One said Hinnant had dropped his gun before Yezzi fired, and the other, who saw only part of the chase, said she never saw a gun in Hinnant's hand. A third witness told The Post that night that she saw Hinnant drop the gun as he was running, before he was shot. She was not contacted by police, records show.

The officers said Hinnant was twisting his left shoulder toward Yezzi as Yezzi fired. Medical records show the bullet's trajectory was slightly from the right to left – it hit Hinnant a half inch to the right of his spine and traveled to the front of his chest, where it mushroomed just beneath the skin.

Hinnant's gun was not found near him, as if he had dropped it upon being shot and staggered four steps, as the officers stated. Instead, it was recovered 31 feet behind his body.

The locations of Yezzi's spent shell casings also are difficult to square with the police account. One of Yezzi's shells was recovered about a foot past Hinnant's gun and the other was six feet in front of it, raising the possibility that Yezzi may have run past Hinnant's gun while he fired. Although Glock shells can land in unpredictable ways, they generally eject up and to the right, not forward, police say.

The department's preliminary report, sent the next morning to then-Chief Fred Thomas, said a Colt .45 was "recovered from Mr. Hinnant," but it did not explain that the gun was actually found 31 feet from his body. It said Hinnant was stopped for "possible narcotics violations," yet did not mention that police found no drugs.

Immediately after the shooting, Yezzi's squad leader alerted Officer Don Monroe, who previously had been through a police shooting investigation. He called Yezzi at home that evening to offer support. Monroe also called at least two other members of Yezzi's team, and they met at the police union cafeteria to discuss the incident. Law enforcement officials generally prohibit officers from discussing a shooting while it is under investigation.

In the cafeteria conversation, McClain called Yezzi a "murderous [expletive]" to his face and "said [Yezzi] didn't have to shoot the guy," Monroe later told police internal affairs investigators.

The discussion was apparently overheard by others, and the Office of Internal Affairs opened an inquiry into whether the officers coordinated their stories. That inquiry was closed with no discipline taken against the officers. In taped interviews with the internal affairs investigators, two officers made substantial revisions in their accounts of the shooting.

Williams originally said Hinnant dropped his gun when he was shot. But he told internal affairs investigators he saw Hinnant "fling the gun" backward over his right shoulder as he ran.

McClain originally said he saw Hinnant pointing a weapon at them. But he told internal affairs investigators, "I don't remember seeing [Hinnant's] gun" after the chase began. McClain also said he could offer no explanation for the fact that Yezzi's shell casings were found past Hinnant's dropped gun.

In May 1995, Hinnant's relatives filed suit against the police in Superior Court. That suit is pending. McClain gave a deposition in December 1996, this time insisting, "I did see a gun." He said he did not remember giving a different account to internal affairs investigators.

A 12-year police veteran, McClain left the force this year. He declined to comment on the Hinnant case, except to say that he did not recall changing his testimony. He said his description of Yezzi as "murderous" in a conversation with other officers was friendly ribbing taken out of context.

Monroe also declined to comment on his involvement in the investigation, citing the pending lawsuit. But he said: "You are hired to protect and serve, and if you don't protect yourself, you can't protect nobody else. The police officer, he wants to go home just like he came to work – in one piece."

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