A Black Man Is Killed by a Trooper. His Family Wants Answers.

By 

THE NEW YORK TIMES

June 8, 2020

Maurice Gordon, 28, was studying chemistry at Dutchess Community College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. 

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Maurice Gordon’s mother and sister were at home in London when the call came.

Mr. Gordon, a 28-year-old black man who had moved to the United States from Jamaica to work and attend college, had been shot and killed by a New Jersey State Police trooper during a traffic stop on May 23. There had been a struggle, his mother said she was told, and Mr. Gordon had been shot four times.

The shooting occurred two days before the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died in police custody in Minneapolis after a white officer held a knee on his neck for nearly nine minutes, setting off weeks of nationwide protests by demonstrators demanding an overhaul of policing and increased accountability.

“I’m broken inside,” Mr. Gordon’s mother, Racquel Barrett, said in an interview early Monday. “I just need answers: Why did they kill my son?”

Hours later, the state’s attorney general, Gurbir S. Grewal, released 12 audio and video recordings, including a limited backward-facing camera view of the deadly struggle between Mr. Gordon and the trooper, Sgt. Randall Wetzel, who is white.

The attorney general’s office said that Mr. Gordon had been spotted at about 6:26 a.m. driving southbound at 110 miles per hour on the Garden State Parkway in Bass River, about 100 miles south of New York City.

It was Mr. Gordon’s fourth encounter with the police in 30 hours after a friend in New York called 911 to express concern about Mr. Gordon’s “well being and whereabouts,” according to the attorney general. “He looked very, very panicked,” the friend told the dispatcher, according to a recording of the 911 call. “He said something about a paranormal experience.”

Before the shooting, Mr. Gordon tried twice to sit in the driver’s seat of Sergeant Wetzel’s police car, prompting the officer to initially use pepper spray on Mr. Gordon, according to the attorney general’s office.

The attorney general’s office is investigating the shooting. Gov. Philip D. Murphy said a grand jury would review Mr. Gordon’s death to consider possible criminal charges under a protocol established by Mr. Grewal in December to guide inquiries into the police’s use of deadly force.

“Any life lost is a loss to be mourned and grieved,” Mr. Murphy said at a briefing on Monday. “Police have a responsibility to protect the people they serve, and that demands a high level of accountability when things go wrong.”

Sergeant Wetzel, a 15-year State Police veteran, has been placed on administrative leave. A union representative did not return calls seeking comment.

Mr. Gordon moved from Jamaica to Poughkeepsie, N.Y., at 19, joining several half-siblings who lived in the area. He drove for Uber and made deliveries for Uber Eats while studying chemistry at Dutchess Community College’s Collegiate Science and Technology Entry Program, relatives and school officials said.

He dreamed of being a chemistry teacher, his mother said.

A former girlfriend told The Pine Barrens Tribune, a South Jersey publication, that he was being treated for schizophrenia. His mother, sister and a family lawyer neither confirmed nor disputed that, but they said it was irrelevant to his death. The former girlfriend could not be immediately reached for comment.

“I don’t think his mental health has anything to do with it,” Ms. Barrett said.

The lawyer, William O. Wagstaff III, said there were more questions than answers about what had led to the struggle, which he said happened nearly 40 minutes into Mr. Gordon’s encounter with the police.

Mr. Wagstaff, who said he had been allowed to view a portion of the police footage before it was released, said that Mr. Gordon’s car was pulled off to the side of the parkway’s left-hand passing lane. When Mr. Gordon was asked to move his car to the safety of the opposite shoulder, it would not start, Mr. Wagstaff said.

At first, Mr. Gordon sat in his car while waiting for a tow truck to arrive, the lawyer said. He then moved to the back seat of the trooper’s car, which was parked behind his.

Mr. Gordon was frisked before entering the trooper’s car and was not carrying a weapon, Mr. Wagstaff said.

He was not handcuffed, and there was no indication that he was being placed under arrest. At one point, Sergeant Wetzel suggested that Mr. Gordon’s car might have run out of gas and he asked Mr. Gordon whether he wanted to accompany the tow truck to the repair shop once it arrived. The sergeant told Mr. Gordon that he was being held in the police car to avoid the danger of waiting on the busy highway.

Just after 7 a.m., Mr. Gordon, who can be seen in the police footage wearing a seatbelt and sitting calmly in the back of the trooper’s car for about 21 minutes, climbed out, and the two men began to struggle.

“He’s aware he has no weapons on him,” Mr. Wagstaff, referring to the trooper’s knowledge that Mr. Gordon was unarmed. “There was no ticket — no notice that he’s being arrested.”

The video of the struggle offers only a partial, distant view of the altercation. Sergeant Wetzel and Mr. Gordon can be seen grappling behind the trooper’s car, separating and then sparring again just before six shots ring out. After Mr. Gordon falls to the ground, Sergeant Wetzel placed him in handcuffs.

After the shooting, Sergeant Wetzel can be heard on the video telling another law enforcement official that Mr. Gordon had tried to grab his gun. “He ran away from me, tried to hop into my trooper car, grabbed my gun,” the sergeant said. “We were fighting with my gun and I shot him.”

According to Mr. Grewal’s office, Mr. Gordon ran out of gas twice in the hours before the shooting, with state troopers responding both times. He was also issued a ticket for driving 101 m.p.h. in Stafford, N.J., about 13 minutes before Sergeant Wetzel stopped him.

Mr. Gordon’s sister, Yanique Gordon, 27, flew with her mother from London to monitor the investigation and to make funeral arrangements for her brother.

She said that she had often spoken out about inequality in England.

But she said that after the deaths of her brother and Mr. Floyd, she was increasingly worried about her five half-siblings who are black and live in the United States.

“It really scares the life out of me to think this could happen to them as well,” she said. “The odds are against us as black people in America.”

Ms. Gordon said she was wary of the authorities, and that she wondered what might have happened after Mr. Floyd’s death if there was no video evidence depicting it. She said she was similarly worried that her brother’s death might not result in a thorough investigation.

“I have zero trust in the American system,” she said. “There is no accountability. You have to get every single voice screaming and shouting for your rights.”

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