Pagotto's sentence will punish residents

March 02, 1997|By MICHAEL OLESKER

All the great whispering about the Stephen Pagotto manslaughter case has him playing the fall guy to placate angry black people. Such talk is a slander against blacks, who have more at stake in the criminal justice business than anyone, but it tells us lots about the atmosphere in court last week, where the white policeman Pagotto got three years in prison for accidentally killing the black narcotics trafficker Preston Barnes.

Judge John Carroll Byrnes managed to spend 35 labored minutes explaining his thinking before sentencing Pagotto, and stunning many in the packed courtroom with his severity, yet he never mentioned the thing hanging over this case like a shroud: Is Pagotto a sacrificial lamb? Was his prosecution and sentencing a peace offering from a justice system still perceived as racist to those in the black community believing police unfairly target them?

Judge Byrnes said he was moved by a letter from Preston Barnes' mother, Sylvia Smith, who wrote him of "scars that will never heal. I'll never get to see my grandchildren that [Preston] will never father, he'll never get to go to school and become a barber as he planned, and he'll never get to watch me grow old so he could be there to take care of me as we planned."

Such sentiments touch everyone's heart, including Stephen Pagotto's. In his final words before sentencing, the former cop who's had to dig ditches to support his family turned to Sylvia Smith and said he was sorry. Smith's sobs echoed across the courtroom. In that moment, she wasn't just Preston Barnes' mother, she was everyone's, aching over a fallen, troubled son who might have been any parent's.

But her son made conscious choices in his life, and one of them was to run with the outlaw class. This automatically put him in the line of fire. He was already serving five years' probation for a drug distribution conviction, and there was a prior handgun conviction hanging over him, when he was stopped with two of his buddies last February on Kirk Avenue.

They had crack cocaine in the car. This is the thing that wrecks entire neighborhoods, that puts frightened people on the telephone in the dark hours because they sense someone breaking into their barricaded homes, and causes such flight that entire city blocks are now pockmarked with abandonment, with boarded-up windows and doors, and trash sitting in vacant yards and gutters, and the street corners belonging to the predatory class.

Pagotto, on the street specifically to go after guns and drugs, stopped Barnes for appearing to lack a rear license tag. Barnes, seeing the cop approach him, envisioned his entire future going away.

So, as Pagotto ordered him to get out of his car, Barnes hit the gas. Pagotto's arm, extended and holding out his gun, was thus hit by the car. His finger was on the trigger. The shot went into Barnes and killed him.

There is something wrong in making a police officer, trying to protect the community, pay this kind of price for a mistake in the line of duty. His error was one of procedure: He reached too early for his gun. This is easy to say but hard to figure in the darkness, in a heartbeat's adrenalin timing, as you approach three guys making gestures Pagotto had been trained to judge as dangerous.

So, for months now, the talk has been not merely about Pagotto and Barnes, but about all of the things that make this city's inhabitants suspect each other by skin color. There are blacks who say the criminal justice system is biased, that cops arrest by skin color, that the prejudice and brutality have to end.

From this come whispers that a deal was struck: Pagotto would be the sacrifice, the signal to angry blacks that the system is, in fact, colorblind. A white cop, a 15-year veteran with decorations, with a reputation for honest aggressiveness, would be prosecuted for shooting a black guy with a record.

When a mostly black jury then convicted Pagotto, it set off the familiar suspiciousness of whites: Black juries are biased. This overlooks the daily occurrences in countless courtrooms, where black juries routinely convict black defendants, but let it ride for a moment. The whispering was: If Pagotto was now given a harsh sentence, it would be the final signal to the black community that justice was blind, that the white system would sacrifice one of its own as an offering.

If such thinking figured anywhere in the Pagotto processing, then shame on everyone. Instead of sending a false signal about racial colorblindness, this sends another message: that the real life of besieged black neighborhoods is not as important as the political chips to be cashed; and that people frightened of the violence in their lives can be placated, because a white cop has been nailed, but good.

When sentencing was handed to Pagotto on Thursday, two cops stood on Calvert Street, outside the old federal courthouse, waiting to hear what had happened inside. When they heard the news, both cursed.

"What this means," said Officer Ellison James, "is that you can't do the job. You're damned if you do, and damned if you don't. You don't know when to draw your gun, and if you hesitate, you're dead. And if you don't hesitate, you get no backing."

"A bad day," agreed Officer James Harlee. "A sad day. I wouldn't want my family to go through this."

For the record, both cops are black. They understand the thing that some in political circles forget: The system works for everyone, or for no one. It's Pagotto suffering today, but whole neighborhoods will feel the impact.

Pub Date: 3/02/97

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