Hubbard jury finding aside, questions linger

June 22, 2000|By MICHAEL OLESKER

AT 8:30 YESTERDAY morning, the five of them sprawled across these rowhouse front steps at Barclay and 20th, where Larry Hubbard took his last breath. By coincidence, they were all dressed in black, like Zorro. By design, when a car pulled up with two white men inside, one of the guys in black rose from the stoop to talk with them, and then one of the white men got out of the car and took a little stroll up the street with him.

In this neighborhood, a skeptic might wonder if a dope deal was in progress. The neighborhood has about a 30-year history of such enterprise, plus the various subsidiary occupations involving breaking into houses, knocking over old ladies for their pocketbooks or stealing unprotected automobiles.

In October, police were in the process of arresting Larry Hubbard for stealing a car when they shot him to death. Two days ago, a grand jury said this was the fault of nobody in particular. These things happen. Never mind those who claimed Hubbard was on his knees, begging for his life, when the shots were fired. Never mind that serious attorneys have filed a $60 million wrongful-death lawsuit. According to this grand jury, nobody gets blamed, and nobody gets indicted.

And maybe they got it right.

Maybe, despite the bitterness of Hubbard's family, and the outcries of neighbors (some with ulterior motives) who decry police brutality, and the public anger of attorneys - maybe the grand jury got it right.

But we don't know, do we?

What we know is that 22 witnesses showed up, and when everyone's testimony was finished, the grand jury felt that all public outcries, all allegations of willful killing, all lawsuits notwithstanding, whatever killed Larry Hubbard was not murder.

"I can say without hesitation that we have presented every witness, and, in this case, justice was done," State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy declared at a news conference Tuesday. "There were some discrepancies in what the witnesses originally said. Once they were sworn in, the discrepancies were not as great as we were led to believe."

Such things happen.

In the wake of any high-profile police action, tempers flare, exaggerations are made and take on a life of their own, political posturers arrive to pick at the bones - and the truth becomes hard to determine.

The police say Hubbard grappled with the two arresting officers as they tried to handcuff him. In the struggle, they say, he reached for one of their guns. Some who saw the struggle say Hubbard pleaded, "Don't shoot." In the post-shooting recap, though, there is some belief that the voice was, in fact, one of the cops telling his partner not to shoot, because the three men were so entwined that a shot might have killed any of them.

What a horrible moment that must have been, with three men facing the possibility of the end of any of their lives - and what an inevitable fallout we are delivered: two white cops, one black victim, so naturally we attach the thing we always attach, which is race.

Black people who are instinctively suspicious of whites assume that a black person's life has no value, and that police can reach for a gun with the tacit assurance a white-controlled justice system will let them off the hook.

And it does not matter that the state's attorney is African-American, or that grand juries - including the Hubbard grand jury - are racially mixed. Some opinions are set in stone. We want to believe what we want to believe.

"These people are civilians," Jessamy was saying. She meant the grand jury members. What she also meant was: Nobody controls them, not state's attorneys, not police, not any manner of law enforcement officials who might want to manipulate what happened that day at Barclay and 20th.

"They weigh the credibility," Jessamy said of the grand jury. "Every single [potential witness] whose name we knew about, we brought in. We even asked [the Hubbard family's] attorneys for any names they had. We took everybody in and let them have their say. And, whatever my opinion was, I did not share it with the grand jury. In their estimation, the officers acted justifiably. And, yes, I think the grand jury acted appropriately."

In the $60 million wrongful-death suit filed last week by Johnnie Cochran and Billy Murphy, the attorneys say they are not only seeking compensation for Hubbard's family but also want to eliminate police brutality.

Good luck. We all want to eliminate police brutality. But we also want to eliminate what the police confront each day, which is the absolute worst of human nature, and the need to respond to it on short notice, and sometimes getting it right and sometimes not.

In this case, a grand jury said they got it right - that Larry Hubbard is dead but the police still did what they are supposed to do: arrest those they believe are breaking the law. There appears to be a lot of law-breaking around Barclay and 20th. Yesterday morning, there were five guys in black sprawled across some front steps, and now a second car pulled up, and it was a couple more white guys. And the process repeated itself, one guy getting out of the car to take a little stroll with a guy in black.

In such a neighborhood, this is known as the routine stuff.

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