Where is the line separating self-defense from vigilantism?
New York is not a “stand your ground” state, meaning that a person has a duty to retreat from a threat if possible, before using deadly force. But this story proves you can still chase after and kill an unarmed person in a crowded subway station and get away with it, in a public shooting that is shocking, even by New York standards.
On Tuesday, March 10, 2015 electricians Gilbert Drogheo, 32 and Joscelyn Evering, 28, were headed home from work, strapping on a crowded subway to Brooklyn. As 69 year-old Willie Groomes, an ex-prison guard (who retired in 1993) with a gun permit, tried to walk between the pair to get on the subway, one of the younger men addressed him with the slang, “my nigger,” according to reports. Groomes replied, “I’m not your nigger.”
“They (Drogheo and Evering) were talking mad trash,” a witness reportedly said. “They must have been drunk.” Other witnesses said Drogheo raised his fist, threatening to “smoke” Groomes before Evering jumped Groomes (something Evering denied). Groomes pulled out a .380 Ruger handgun to try to fight him off. At least one witness reportedly saw Drogheo push Groomes back into the train as the two friends exited to get away. Neither Drogheo nor Evering is reported to have been armed.
Groomes went after Drogheo, later claiming he wanted to make a “citizens’ arrest”. A three minute witness’ cellphone video shows the ensuing confrontation. Groomes is first seen on the video in the station, apparently after exiting the subway, walking swiftly down stairs, toward someone who is shouting at him on the lower stairs, and, as Groomes advances, he can be heard saying “Where you gonna go” to the younger man, who runs when Groomes gets to bottom of the stairs.
During the encounter, someone can be heard shouting repeatedly, “Don’t shoot him, O.G., don’t shoot him”. Groomes stops, looks up, turns, and heads back up the stairs, where, 25 seconds into the video, Groomes goes at Drogheo landing a left fist to the temple and holding a gun in the right hand. Drogheo reels from the blow, then struggles with Groomes over the gun before being shot. Witnesses scramble and a man who appears to be Evering approaches the wounded Drogheo, kneeling over and calling out mournfully to him as police arrive. Evering is arrested. Drogheo died later that evening at a hospital.
On May 4th, Brooklyn District Ken Thompson announced there wasn’t enough evidence to prove a crime was committed.
Thompson issued a statement that read, “Following a full and fair investigation…I have determined that criminal charges are not warranted in this matter. Based on interviews of multiple eyewitnesses to the events leading up to the shooting, our review of video tapes of the shooting itself and other evidence, I have decided not to put this case into the grand jury and will not bring criminal charges against Mr. Groomes. While the death of this young man was indeed tragic, we cannot prove any charge of homicide beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Prosecutors claim a second video shows that Groomes had given up trying to track down Drogheo, but they ran into each other again, when they claim Drogheo initiated a struggle that resulted in an “accidental discharge” of the weapon. This shocking cellphone video below seems to contradict that contention.
New York state self-defense laws allow a citizen to use physical force, “other than deadly physical force” when “he or she reasonably believes such to be necessary to effect an arrest or to prevent the escape from custody of a person” who may have committed a crime. A citizen can use deadly physical force only when defending against “imminent use of deadly physical force,” or when it is necessary to detain a person who was committed manslaughter, murder, robbery, forcible rape, or forcible criminal sexual act.
Gregg Pinto, a former Brooklyn assistant district attorney, told Gawker the reason Groomes was not arrested has little to do with self-defense or anything else about the conflict itself. “I can’t imagine that if this guy didn’t have a badge, he wouldn’t have been arrested,” Pinto. “In my opinion, NYPD is arrest first, ask questions later. The only time you don’t arrest is if the person is somehow connected to the police.”
In 1984, New Yorker Bernie Goetz made national headlines when he shot four black teenagers who were trying to mug him. He was arrested but later acquitted of attempted murder.
No one disputes the fact that Drogheo and his friend initiated the confrontation. Yet Groomes could have simply called the cops, or not followed the two younger men. He has not been charged or arrested. Evering was arrested at the scene, charged with menacing and felony assault. Drogheo’s family wants and deserves justice and have started a petition to get District Attorney Ken Thompson to charge Groomes with murder.
Was Groomes justified? What do you think he should have done? Leave your comments.
What’s your opinion of stand your ground law?
- The Subway Slaying That Wasn’t a Crime
- Stand Your Ground Cases That Make Us Gawk
- Stand Your Ground In Action: Dead Men Can’t Talk
- 8 Awful Closed Cases Of Stand Your Ground