After 14 years, a civil case against 2 former cops

March 4, 2009 5:50:12 PM PST
In 1995, two detectives staking out a Bronx apartment unleashed a deadly barrage of 28 bullets on a pair of young robbery suspects, setting off angry protests against then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani and the NYPD. The victims were face-down on the ground when they were killed, one shot eight times in the back and the second hit with 14 bullets, mostly in the back.

Now, 14 years later, the case is finally seeing a courtroom. The parents of the two victims are suing the city and former officers for $20 million.

Jury selection will continue Thursday in Bronx state Supreme Court. Opening arguments in the case were scheduled for Friday, said Seth Harris, a lawyer for the families.

The trial will revisit an era of community outrage against the Giuliani administration over allegations of excessive force by police officers who, like the shooters in the Bronx case, received little or no punishment.

"We look forward to shedding light on the corruption that permitted these boys to be killed without consequence or accountability," Harris said.

The city law department, defending the former officers in the case, would not comment on the lawsuit.

On the night in question, detectives James Crowe and Patrick Brosnan were called to the Bronx apartment on a tip there would be a robbery there. The victims, Anthony Rosario and Hilton Vega, had come to the building to collect a debt they believed was owed to one of their girlfriends in a scam run by the man who lived at the apartment.

The cops told them to get on the ground and opened fire when Rosario and Vega did not comply quick enough. Vega, 21, and Rosario, 18, who were cousins, died, and another man with them was injured. The detectives said the men were armed, but they fired no shots.

Still, an NYPD investigation found the police acted within department guidelines, and a Bronx grand jury brought no criminal charges. Federal prosecutors said there wasn't enough evidence. The officers retired from the force on a disability pension related to the incident in 1996.

Critics said the NYPD had overlooked incriminating details because Brosnan served as a volunteer bodyguard for the mayor's 1993 campaign. The case also called into question the authority of the fledgling Civilian Complaint Review Board, formed two years earlier as a way for citizens to log police complaints. An investigation by the board found that the detectives used excessive force, but the report was ignored by the police commissioner at the time, William Bratton.

"This was obviously a very serious case, and we conducted an investigation following the rules and authority we had, and we were surprised by how much we discovered at the location," said Hector Soto, the head of the board at the time, who resigned not long after the report.

"This was a very comprehensive and well-done report. And his response was to throw it in the garbage, and he wasn't even going to read it," Soto said.

A media request with Bratton's office, who is Los Angeles police chief, was not immediately returned Wednesday.

Soto said he resigned in part because of how Bratton responded. Investigators who had worked on the case either resigned or were fired by the next leader of the board - a Giuliani appointee.

But the case didn't go away, mostly because of Margarita Rosario, the mother of Anthony. She became a vocal activist, turning her car into a mobile tombstone, inscribing the back with the words: ANTHONY ROSARIO - KILLED BY COPS. The family also said there was a racial element to the killings; the officers are white, the victims Hispanic.

Four years after the shooting, Rosario called in to Guiliani's radio show to say he had mischaracterized their case. Giuliani was later lambasted for suggesting on air that she look at her skills as a parent instead of how the officers behaved. He told her he felt terrible for her, but also accused her of ignoring her son's criminal past and distorting the facts of the case.

Rosario contends that two detectives ordered the two cousins to lay face down, then executed them while they begged for mercy. She has continued to speak out on the issues of police oversight and police brutality.

In the late 1990s, Haitian immigrant Abner Louima was sodomized with a broomstick in a police precinct. Two officers were convicted in the attack. A few years later, two police shootings of unarmed black men followed, including Amadou Diallo, who was shot 41 times after he reached into his pocket for a wallet. The acquittal of the officers in that case led to days of protests.

But the climate is different under Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, who are perceived as being more caring than their predecessors.

"The leading change in the city has been through Bloomberg," said Eugene O'Donnell, a professor of police studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. "Bloomberg and Kelly have definitely created a department that's more sensitive."


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