Facing Murder, without Firing a Shot ; Death of a Police Officer in R.I. Reignites Controversy over Little- Known Charge of Felony Murder

Article excerpt

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. …

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