Pubdate: Sun, 12 Oct 2003
Source: Philadelphia Inquirer, The (PA)
Copyright: 2003 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc
Author: John Shiffman and Troy Graham
Bookmark: (Cocaine)


He was fatally shot during a traffic stop in Camden. N.J. state police were
ordered to release the footage.

Deborah Johnson had waited eight months for this moment, unable to
sleep through the night - ever since Jan. 29, the day a New Jersey
state trooper killed her son as he fled a traffic stop. She needed to
know what happened.

It took a federal court order, but on Friday the state finally
provided her family with videotapes of what happened, as filmed from
the dashboards of three trooper cruisers.

Johnson's family members, already stung by news Friday afternoon that
a state grand jury would not indict any troopers involved, gathered at
dusk around a big-screen TV in their Pennsauken living room.

They drew curtains, and someone pushed the play button. What they saw
was a rare window into a fatal traffic stop, and how a seat-belt
violation turned into a homicide.

The first of the three videotapes that recorded Michael Simmons' final
moments - copies of which also were viewed by The Inquirer - began as
a trooper pulled Simmons' station wagon to the side of a snowy Camden
street. The picture was in color and well-lit, but was somewhat
obscured by melting flakes on the windshield.

Trooper John Hayes approached Simmons' window and accused him of
failing to stop before making a right turn on red: "You went through a
red light, and you didn't even slow down."

"With the ice I would have slid right through, you know," Simmons
replied, then handed the trooper his license and registration.

The trouble appeared to begin when the trooper moved to question the
passenger, Simmons' cousin, Akeem Herbert. Asked his name, Herbert
fumbled, giving a bogus name but spelling it several different ways.
Simmons tried to help, but Hayes told him to be quiet.

The trooper ran the fake name Herbert gave him and got nothing. The
trooper warned him: "If I don't get your right name, you're going to
county jail under John Doe and you're going to stay there until we get
the right name. All you're looking at is a stupid seat-belt ticket...

Herbert gave him his true name. The trooper then pulled him from the
car and arrested him, placing him in a squad car. The charge:

Hayes radioed: "I've got one in custody - hindering. I'm going to
search the vehicle incidental" - police jargon for a search following
an arrest.

By this time, another trooper, Daniel Ellington, had joined Hayes and
now they both stood by Simmons' car window.

"I have to search your car because I locked him up," one of the
troopers said.

"No, I gave you my license and registration," Simmons replied. "I want
my lawyer if you want to search my car."

"Right now you're getting a warning for your red light and a seat-belt
ticket," a trooper said.

The exchange grew tense and louder. They spoke over each other.
Finally, one trooper said: "You're under arrest, too. Get out of the

The taillights on Simmons' car turned red, the wheels pealed, and he
smoked the tires. The vehicle and two troopers on foot appeared to
accelerate as one. One trooper, apparently Ellington, leaned close to
the car, running alongside, then appeared to draw a weapon with his
left hand.

Six seconds later, shots crackled.

Ellington fired at least seven times, striking Simmons in the neck and

Afterward, police called for an ambulance but did not render Simmons
any immediate aid.

The snowflakes, the motion and the angles in the videos make it
difficult to definitively state whose story is most accurate - the
state's version, that Ellington was snagged on the car and feared for
his life, or the Simmons family version, that Ellington unlawfully
used deadly force.

But the videotapes do show that one aspect of the initial police
account may have been exaggerated. Authorities initially said the
trooper hung on to the roof rack and was dragged for several blocks
before he fired. On the tape, it is clear the shots were fired within
six seconds, well before the car traveled a full city block.

David Jones, a troopers' union official, declared Friday that the
videotapes helped exonerate the troopers.

"The system worked," he said. Jones criticized a federal civil-rights
lawsuit filed by the family against the state and the troopers,
calling it a bald money grab.

The lawyer for Simmons' family, Joseph Marrone, saw it

The tapes, he said, are "one of the most horrific pieces of evidence
I've ever seen." Simmons complied with all the troopers' commands,
gave them valid driving credentials, and simply wanted to leave,
Marrone said.

"The troopers probably broke every attorney-general guideline in the
book," Marrone said. "It came down to a ticket for not wearing your
seat belt and it escalated to this?"

The tapes also did not appear to shed any light on the cocaine that
troopers allegedly found in the car. Herbert was initially charged
with drug possession, but the charges later were dropped.

Herbert, who had watched the shooting in handcuffs from the back of a
squad car, joined the Johnson family at the Pennsauken home Friday

As many as a dozen relatives squeezed around the large TV in the small
living room. When the shots erupted on the videotape, family members
became enraged, Marrone said.

According to Marrone, Simmons' mother simply covered her face with her
palms, and said over and over: "Why? Why?"
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