The line of mourners poured out the church door and stretched
around the block. Hundreds of police officers stood quietly beside
family and friends, but the tension was tangible. The unspoken
question: How could an off-duty police officer be killed
accidentally by fellow officers?
Across town in a jail cell sat a man accused of the murder.
Aldrin Diaz never fired a shot, and his gun was not used to kill
Officer Cornel Young Jr. But he was instrumental in the tragedy,
police say, and so should spend the rest of his life in prison.
Mr. Diaz is charged with felony murder, a little-known law
increasingly used from Rhode Island to Nebraska to California. While
simple in concept - if someone is killed while you are committing a
felony, you can be held responsible for the murder - the law is
proving to be controversial in practice.
Such is the case here in working-class Providence, R.I., where
the circumstances of Officer Young's death are stirring racial
tensions - and raising questions about whether the felony-murder
charge is enabling the police to sidestep accountability.
"We have a real concern with prosecutors using felony-murder
charges to help police avoid responsibility for their actions," says
Van Jones of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in San
Francisco, which monitors human-rights violations by law-
enforcement agencies in the US.
Sequence of events
On the night Young was killed, events unfolded in a quick but
tragic sequence. After arguing in a restaurant with another patron,
Diaz apparently went to his car to get a gun. According to police,
he was standing in the parking lot, waving the gun, when two
patrolmen arrived on scene.
That's when Young, who'd been eating at the same restaurant,
emerged, gun drawn, to help. But the two officers apparently did not
recognize Young, an African-American, out of uniform. They shot him
when he did not drop his gun.
"It is important to point out that the responsibility for this
tragic incident lies with the suspect, Aldrin Diaz, who introduced
the use of a firearm into this disturbance," said Providence Police
Chief Urbano Prignano Jr. after the shooting last week.
Shock in some quarters
The arrest of Diaz for felony murder has sent shock waves through
the black community here, which believes that race may have been a
factor in the patrolmen's split-second decision to fire at Young.
"The African-American community doesn't like it, and the Hispanic
community is very confused by it," says the Rev. Marlowe Washington,
the Young family's pastor at the Allen A.M.E. Church in Providence.
"It has created a lot of rifts here."
Most states have some form of felony murder, which dates from
English common law. But with its increased use comes an increase in
abuse, say opponents, who believe the law can be used to shield
police from responsibility.
"Police have a narrative in their head of who's guilty, who's
innocent, and who's likely to be a cop. …