Jim Dey: Ferguson case brings back memories of 2009 Champaign shooting
A white cop shoots and kills a black teenage boy.
Community members, divided along racial lines, respond by asserting the shooting was either an indefensible intentional killing or the tragic result of unlawful behavior by the victim.
As the investigation proceeds, critics charge the prosecutor will not be fair because of close family ties to the police.
That description obviously fits what has happened in Ferguson, Mo., since the Aug. 9 shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown. But it's also a fair description of the traumatic events locally following the Oct. 9, 2009, accidental shooting of 15-year-old Kiwane Carrington by a Champaign police officer.
What do those two cases have in common? Nothing and everything.
The facts surrounding the two events could not be more different. But, in some people's eyes, facts are irrelevant. They embrace conflicting narratives — racist police officers summarily executing young black men or self-destructive criminals sewing the seeds of their own demise.
It's a witches brew of emotion driven by people's different experiences in life that calls for delicate handling by the responsible public officials.
That reality came flooding back recently as Champaign County State's Attorney Julia Rietz has watched events unfold in Ferguson.
"Watching the news reports about protests and arrests and looting makes me appreciate the Champaign-Urbana community's reaction in the Carrington case. Emotions ran high, and people had strong opinions, but those opinions were expressed through peaceful means without creating increased conflict and loss," she said.
Champaign-Urbana is a highly mobile community, so more recent residents probably are not familiar with what occurred here.
On a grim, rainy, chilly October day, Carrington and a friend were trying to gain entry to a residence at 906 W. Vine St., C. A friend of the family and a frequent overnight guest in the home, Carrington went to the residence to gain shelter and found the house unoccupied. After trying to get in the front, he and Jeshaun Manning-Carter went to the rear of the residence and tried to force open the back door.
Unbeknownst to them, a neighbor spotted the boys trying to enter the house and called police to report a burglary in progress.
Then-Police Chief R.T. Finney, who was driving in the area after just finishing lunch, responded, as did Officer Daniel Norbits.
They arrived in separate vehicles, found nothing amiss in the front and went around to the back of the house.
With guns drawn, standard procedure in response to a burglary in progress, they rounded the back of the house, found the two boys at the back door and ordered them to the ground.
But the boys tried to escape by rushing past Finney and Norbits. In the ensuing wrestling match with Carrington, Norbits said he accidently discharged his weapon, the bullet ripping through Carrington's arm and into his chest. He died soon after, a troubled young man with a substantial history in juvenile court who never really had a chance in life.
An investigation by independent investigators found the shooting was accidental. Steve Carter, then Champaign's city manager, ordered a 30-day suspension for Norbits for mishandling his firearm during the melee. Norbits subsequently left the police department on disability leave, the events of that day leaving him emotionally scarred.
In the event of possible civil rights violations, the U.S. Attorney's Office in Springfield conducted its own review and found no legal grounds to file criminal charges against Norbits. The Carrington family retained lawyers to represent them in a civil lawsuit, settling out of court with the city for $470,000.
All this played out over a matter of months, a period when suspicions lingered and resentments festered.
Rietz, who is married to a retired Urbana police officer, said she decided early on to be "as open as possible" once the investigation was complete. She met with the Carrington family to discuss her decision not to prosecute, released her report on the investigation to the public and answered reporters' questions.
She said that releasing all the investigative materials "was helpful with regard to keeping the peace and allowing there to be meaningful discussion about the case."
It remains to be seen how matters will proceed in Ferguson. A grand jury is looking into the Brown shooting, but racial dynamics are obviously in play. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch is keeping a racial scorecard, noting that three of the 12 grand jurors are black while reporting that the white prosecutor's father was a police officer killed in the line of duty by a black man. The New York Times has called for St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCullough to recuse himself from the case because of his alleged bias relating to his father's death.
The facts in the Ferguson case remain in dispute. Despite that confusion, protesters insisting Brown was murdered in cold blood (Jesse Jackson described the event as an "execution") have engaged in both peaceful and violent protests, burning and looting local businesses.
Authorities said the incident occurred after Ferguson police Officer Darren Wilson stopped Brown and a companion because they were walking in the street. Minutes earlier, the two had stolen a box of cigars from a convenience store, video of the incident showing Brown roughing up a store clerk.
Some sort of struggle ensued, and Wilson reportedly sustained fractures to his eye socket before firing six shots into Brown. All six shots hit Brown from the front, contradicting Brown's companion's claim that Brown was shot in the back.
In addition to the state investigation, Attorney General Eric Holder has intervened in the case, sending roughly 40 FBI agents to Ferguson to investigate a potential civil rights violation.
Wilson reportedly has spoken to investigators but otherwise gone into hiding out of fear for his life.
It is now and will continue to be a mess. Investigators ultimately will sort out all of the facts as best they can and decide how to proceed. Not, of course, that facts really matter. Many people prefer the narrative that confirms their preconceived views.
Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 351-5369.