Pubdate: Sun, 07 Jan 2001
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2001 The New York Times Company
Contact:  229 West 43rd Street, New York, NY 10036
Fax: (212) 556-3622
Author: Robert D. McFadden


A state senator planning hearings on racial profiling in New Jersey 
said yesterday that the reinstatement of criminal charges against two 
troopers who shot three black and Hispanic men in a turnpike stop in 
1998 did not settle questions about a State Supreme Court justice who 
played a role in the case.

The senator, William L. Gormley, a Republican who is chairman of the 
Senate Judiciary Committee, said he would proceed with hearings in 
late February or early March to explore questions about the role of 
the justice, Peter G. Verniero, in the case and, more broadly, about 
what Mr. Verniero knew of racial profiling, and when he knew it, when 
he was the state's attorney general.

"We're going to proceed in a nonpartisan fashion with these 
hearings," Senator Gormley, who had been a principal advocate of Mr. 
Verniero's nomination to the Supreme Court in 1999, said in a 
telephone interview. Justice Verniero, like Senator Gormley, is a 

Last October, a Mercer County judge dismissed the shooting charges 
against Troopers John Hogan and James Kenna, saying they had been 
denied rights to a fair trial because Mr. Verniero, when he was 
attorney general in April 1999, had announced that a grand jury had 
charged them with official misconduct at the same time that another 
grand jury was still weighing evidence in the shooting.

On Friday, the Appellate Division of Superior Court reinstated the 
charges, calling the findings of the lower court judge, Andrew J. 
Smithson, "unfounded and unfair," and adding that there was "no 
constitutional or jurisprudential doctrine that grants the judiciary 
a roving commission to oversee the conduct of the attorney general's 
investigations of possible criminal acts."

The three-judge appellate court delivered a lengthy defense of the 
attorney general's office and, in effect, a vindication of Mr. 
Verniero, saying there was no evidence that "release of the 
intervening indictment was calculated to deny, or had the effect of 
denying, the defendant's rights."

But Senator Gormley said yesterday that the ruling left unanswered 
another question: whether Mr. Verniero's announcement of the 
misconduct charges  and its possibly prejudicial effect on the grand 
jury hearing the shooting charges  could have been avoided altogether 
by sealing the first indictment until the second panel had decided 
whether to return an indictment.

"The appellate ruling does not eliminate the question as to why 
Verniero announced the indictment on the lesser charges in the first 
place," Senator Gormley said. "It could have been sealed. If the 
attorney general thought there was the potential for prejudice, why 
would the announcement be made?"

Senator Gormley said his 11-member committee would also investigate 
wider questions involving Mr. Verniero's knowledge of racial 
profiling, a practice in which for years black and Hispanic drivers 
in disproportionate numbers were illegally stopped on the highways by 
state troopers searching for drugs.

Efforts to reach Justice Verniero yesterday were unavailing.

Although there had been allegations of such racial profiling for many 
years, it was the 1998 shooting of the three unarmed minority men on 
the turnpike by Troopers Hogan and Kenna that galvanized the issue 
politically and turned it into a national issue.

Mr. Verniero, in his confirmation hearings for the high court bench 
in 1999, testified that, although he was aware of allegations that 
state troopers were stopping black and Hispanic drivers in inordinate 
numbers, he had no detailed or statistical knowledge of the practice 
until the attorney general's office conducted its own review and he 
issued a report in April 1999 calling the problem "real, not 

Mr. Verniero's critics - mainly Democratic rivals, civil rights 
advocates and lawyers suing the state over racial profiling - 
insisted that he must have known of the practice and failed to stop 
it, taking action only when Gov. Christie Whitman sent his court 
nomination to the State Senate. The controversy intensified last 
November when the state released 91,000 pages of internal state 
records showing that 8 in 10 car searches carried out by state 
troopers on the New Jersey Turnpike over the last decade involved 
vehicles driven by black or Hispanic drivers.

The documents showed that systematic racial profiling had been a 
routine part of state police operations. Some of the documents also 
raised questions about Mr. Verniero's testimony. For example, one 
memo from an assistant attorney general to Mr. Verniero in July 1997 
included an audit of the Moorestown barracks, which had been the 
subject of repeated complaints of racial profiling. It showed that 
blacks and Hispanics made up 13.5 percent of the drivers on the 
turnpike, but accounted for more than 33 percent of the traffic stops.

And while Mr. Verniero had testified that he worked in cooperation 
with a United States Justice Department inquiry into profiling, a 
memo about a meeting of the attorney general and his assistants in 
May 1997 gave another impression of his response to the federal 

Handwritten notes indicated that he was adamantly opposed to entering 
a consent decree that would let a federal monitor oversee the state 
police. The notes, believed to have been written by an assistant 
attorney general, quoted the attorney general as saying that before 
he would sign such a decree "they'd have to tie me to a train and 
drag me along the track."

Justice Verniero last month defended himself for the first time 
against accusations that he misled lawmakers about the extent of his 
knowledge of racial profiling. Largely reiterating earlier 
assertions, he said that the evidence he saw was imprecise and 
contradictory during most of his three years as attorney general, and 
became conclusive only in the last weeks of his tenure, when he took 
steps to stop it.

While some Democrats have spoken of impeaching Justice Verniero for 
what they call his misleading testimony and failure to act sooner 
against racial profiling, other legislators have insisted that 
impeachment is unlikely.

Asked yesterday if Justice Verniero would be called to testify at the 
Senate hearings next month, Senator Gormley, the Judiciary Committee 
chairman, said he was "not going to single out any one person" who 
might testify. But he said he interpreted Justice Verniero's recent 
statement in defense of his conduct to be more than an attempt "to 
clear the air."

The senator added, "I took that as a request to testify."
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