Survivors left to suffer if killer gains freedom

June 06, 1996|By MICHAEL OLESKER

When Charles A. Hopkins hobbled into that criminal courtroom two decades ago, some stunning cosmic joke seemed to have been played by those who create our municipal monsters: The defendant was smaller than his own newspaper headlines.

Finally, here was the City Hall gunman who failed to find William Donald Schaefer but settled on standby victims. Without his gun, without his murderous rage, without the headlines that had bannered his name since the attack of April 13, 1976, this was what remained: a puny, pathetic runt who'd been shot himself during the attack, whose body was now bent grotesquely into the shape of a question mark as he gimped his way across a room.

Now the mental health people say it's OK to let him go. Twenty years after the shooting, 19 years after his attorney, Billy Murphy, argued that Hopkins was simply a black man who'd gone crazy from a lifetime of white oppression and a jury found Hopkins insane, we now hear Hopkins is no longer a threat to public safety. His lawyers are drafting terms for his release from a downtown halfway house. He's been living there for most of the past 12 years, while nobody was paying much attention.

The mind checks its rearview mirror. Twenty years ago, barely 24 hours before he went for his gun, Hopkins marched into a City Hall hearing, upset that the Health Department had closed his carryout business.

"We have a budget meeting going on here," he was told.

"I don't care," Hopkins cried. "I'm being thrown out of my house."

Mary Pat Clarke looked up from her City Council seat and saw the desperation scribbled across Hopkins' face. She walked over to him and said, "I'll try to help you."

I was working at the ITALICS News American END ITALICS then. City Hall was temporarily located on Calvert Street, a couple of blocks west. The day after Hopkins' budget hearing appearance, when the first police-radio report arrived of a shooting at City Hall, I got there as the bodies were being carried out of the building. Just inside the front door, people were screaming and holding each other for comfort. When I looked up Calvert Street, here was Clarke running up, ghostly pale, her body trembling.

"Who is it?" she asked, looking around frantically. "It's Hopkins, isn't it?"

"Hopkins?" I thought she meant the hospital.

"I knew it would happen," she said. "I knew he was gonna shoot somebody."

He'd shot City Councilman Dominic M. Leone Sr. and killed him. Shot Councilman Carroll J. Fitzgerald and mayoral aide Kathleen Nolan, wounded a city cop, and caused a heart attack in City Councilman Joe Curran Sr. that would end his life.

It was a murder case that defense attorney Billy Murphy turned into a discrimination case. Hopkins was a poor black man driven to the breaking point by whites, Murphy told the mostly black jury. Quoting Langston Hughes, Murphy asked, "What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun, or does it explode?"

Race became an issue, and it didn't matter that Mary Pat Clarke had been the only council member to comfort Hopkins the night before his shooting; didn't matter that Hopkins had never met Leone or the other victims before he opened fire; didn't matter what Leone himself had gone through in matters of race.

In 1967, Leone cast the deciding vote in favor of an emotionally charged rent subsidy bill backed mainly by blacks and fought mainly by whites. He stood on the floor of the City Council chambers to cast his vote. He had a prepared speech in his hand and tore it up.

"I have been spat in the face," he said, "called names, and my brothers and sisters won't talk to me. But I am bigger than the whole bunch of them. I don't want anybody to think I'm racist."

Did Hopkins fire the gun because of racial oppression? Dominic Leone would have found that a final grand irony. So would Carroll Fitzgerald and Joe Curran, who were working hard to obliterate the old, divisive color lines. Did he fire the gun because he was insane? Expert testimony was divided, but the jury wasn't.

So now, we're told, Hopkins is no longer a threat. The families of the victims are expected to put their anger behind them, though that's not precisely what they anticipated two decades ago. Back then, the talk went, Hopkins will be put away forever. He's going to a hospital, sure, but it's still confinement. They'll never let him out, not a guy who went after politicians. It was talk intended to comfort, but it wasn't exactly accurate.

If we believe in the redemption of human beings, then maybe Charles Hopkins is the perfect person to let go. He's spent 20 years behind walls. He's medicated to control his emotions. The doctors say he's safe, that he's paid his penalty. Presumably, he's sorry.

Which means: The ones left to suffer are the survivors, those not killed by the bullets but still scarred, and those bereaved families recalling the departed.

Pub Date: 6/06/96

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