Thursday, September 27, 2001

Roach not guilty; city under curfew

By Jane Prendergast
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Cincinnati imposed a curfew early today after Police Officer Stephen Roach's acquittal Wednesday on all charges in the April 7 fatal shooting of Timothy Thomas — a death that ignited the worst racial unrest in the city in three decades.

        Hamilton County Municipal Judge Ralph E. Winkler said Officer Roach shot the unarmed Evanston man in a “split-second reaction to a very dangerous situation that was created by Mr. Thomas.”

[photo] Derrick Barton, of West Chester, leans against his car at the police staging area on Vine and 12th Street. Two rocks were thrown at Derricks car while driving in Over-the-Rhine.
(Steven M. Herppich photo)
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Complete coverage in our special section.

        Officer Roach's six-day trial left the judge convinced that the case boiled down to this:

        The officer believed he must shoot or be shot by a suspect who fled police and acted suspiciously in a dark alley of a high-crime neighborhood at 2 a.m.

        Violence broke out in Over-the-Rhine and several cars were pelted with rocks and bottles about one block from a vigil that was being held where Mr. Thomas was shot.

        An undetermined number of car windows were broken on Vine Street. At the vigil site, one photographer suffered minor injuries when he was struck on the foot with a brick. Another photographer who was cut by glass from a broken bottle was taken to a hospital for treatment.

        At least six trash-can fires were set in the neighborhood.

[photo] Courtis Fuller, Cincinnati Mayor candidate, walks with protestors on Elm Street in Over-The-Rhine.
(Brandi Stafford photo)
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        Mayor Charlie Luken declared a state of emergency about 12:15 a.m. today and instituted a citywide curfew effective at 12:30 a.m. until 6 a.m.

        The mayor said the police chief and safety director advised him that the situation on the streets was “very volatile.” The mayor said he expected the curfew to begin again tonight at 10 p.m and run until 6 a.m. Friday.

        Police on the second shift were held over and donned riot helmets as reports of scattered bands of 50 to 100 people sputtered over the police scanner and firefighters fought fires set in trash bins.

        The Rev. Damon Lynch III was praying for peace with a group of more than 100 at New Prospect Baptist Church just before 9:30 p.m.

        “We're not looking for violence. Violence is not the problem. But we do continue to seek justice,” the minister told the group.

        Reports of the fire drew the group outside. Mujahid Abdul Hakim of Over-the-Rhine dumped water on the flames as Cincinnati firefighters hosed down the fire.

        “It's not over. It's not over,” Mr. Hakim said.

[photo] Officer Stephen Roach (right) listens to Wednesday's verdict. Next to him is his lawyer, Merlyn Shiverdecker. Behind him are Angela Leisure, flanked by her husband, Eric and her attorney, Ken Lawson.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
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        In the spring, Mr. Thomas' death set off three days of race riots, led to the arrest of 800 people, cost the city and businesses that were damaged millions of dollars, and tarnished Cincinnati's image worldwide.

        The mayor said Wednesday that Cincinnatians must keep working to find common ground.

        “If we don't respect the due process of law, we are nothing,” the mayor said.

        Officer Roach, charged with two misdemeanor counts — negligent homicide and obstructing official business — was the first Cincinnati police officer to face criminal prosecution for fatally shooting a suspect.

        In the months after the shooting, the U.S. Department of Justice began investigating Cincinnati police for possible patterns and practices that might infringe upon the civil rights of blacks.

        Mr. Thomas was the 15th black man killed in encounters with Cincinnati officers since 1995, though many of those killed were armed.

[photo] Erin roach, right, wife of Stephen Roach, is comforted by her mother while the verdict is read.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
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        Judge Winkler said he was convinced of Officer Roach being not guilty by defense experts who testified about the officer's poor vision that night and the psychological trauma of killing somebody.

        Mr. Thomas' mother, Angela Leisure, urged the community to speak out against police killings, but to do so peacefully.

        “I lead by example,” she said. “You have not seen me once be violent.”

        At 11 a.m. Wednesday, Judge Winkler read the two not-guilty verdicts to a courtroom filled with friends and family of both Mr. Thomas and Officer Roach.

        In an interview after the verdict, the judge urged parents to teach their kids to comply with police officers.

        “If Timothy Thomas had complied,” he said, “he'd probably be out of the Justice Center and his family would be together.”

        Officer Roach, 27, a second-generation cop on the force for four years, blinked back tears as the judge read the verdicts and said: “You are free to go.”

        He could have been sentenced to up to nine months in jail if convicted.

[photo] Angela Leisure comforts her sister-in-law, Tunja Leisure, and her husband, Eric following the reading of the verdict.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
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        The officer walked quickly to a side room, followed by his wife, Erin, a police dispatcher.

        Mrs. Leisure, comforted by her attorney, Ken Lawson, leaned over in her seat and covered her face with her hands.

        “The fact remains,” she said later, “he killed my son.”

        Officer Roach later made an apology.

        “I just want to tell Mrs. Leisure how sorry I am about what has happened to her son,” he said. “I understand her pain and what she must be going through.

        “I would give anything to change the outcome of what happened that night, but unfortunately I can't.”

        The Rev. Mr. Lynch was angry.

        “The officer clearly took a man's life unjustifiably, and now he walks,” said the Rev. Mr. Lynch, leader of the activist group Cincinnati Black United Front.

        Throughout the day and night, people in Over-the-Rhine expressed anger and frustration.

        Police reported a few incidents of thrown rocks and bottles, but the neighborhood remained relatively quiet until later. Monitors from the city's Human Relations Commission walked the streets talking to residents.

        Ronald Dixon, 30, was among a handful of people yelling, “No justice, no peace,” as police squad cars drove by along Vine Street. He said he thought further rioting was inevitable.

        “It's about to be round two up in here,” Mr. Dixon said. “I wish there was a better way. But people are mad.”

        Although Police Chief Tom Streicher still will review the shooting, he said the verdict resolved virtually all the potential issues.

        Special Prosecutor Stephen McIntosh expressed concern about whether Mr. Thomas' actions figured too prominently in the judge's decision.

        “The person who was on trial here is Officer Roach,” he said, “not Mr. Thomas.”

       Enquirer staffers Kevin Aldridge, Howard Wilkinson, Randy Tucker, Robert Anglen and Robin Buchanan contributed to this report.

Curfew to remain through Friday
- Roach not guilty; city under curfew
Acquittals based on self-defense
Anger, fear, sadness felt on streets after verdict
Anger is there, but chaos isn't
Experts' opinions sealed verdict
Lynch: Ruling 'sets us back'
PULFER: Turmoil of April finally over - or is it?
Q & A
Text of Judge Winkler verdict
Then and now: Race relations
Victim's point of view part of justice, too

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