Getting Ground by the Wheels of Justice
By Jimmy Breslin
Originally published in the Daily News, September 27, 1981
Every paper, appearance ticket and verbal instruction had ordered those concerned to be in Room 219 of the Criminal Court, Building, 100 Centre St., at 9:30 a.m. on Friday for the case of the People vs. Joe Williams. At that hour inside the courtroom, a court officer, standing in front of the empty bench, said that the court did not open until 10 a.m. "The reason they put 9:30 is because all the papers get activated at that time in Room 221 and then they come up to us by 10 a.m."
The defendant, Joe Williams, 18, was out in the hallway with his attorney, Andrew Vachss, and three witnesses, one of them me. I was present because I had been subpoenaed, whether I wanted to be or not.
Last June 7, a bright Sunday, I had breakfast with my friend Mel Lebetkin, the attorney, at the Delightful coffee shop at 116th St. and First Ave. Afterwards, we were driving along Pleasant Ave. when we saw a 25th Precinct patrol car cut off a Honda motorscooter at the corner of 117th St. Lebetkin stopped the car and we watched. A police officer, D. Lennihan, jumped out of the car, grabbed the Honda and threw it in the patrol car trunk, attacked a kid who was watching, John Williams, 15, and then threw a headlock on the Honda driver, Charles Richardson, 16, and hurled Richardson into the back of the patrol car. The outburst appeared to have been caused by nothing more than some rage inside Lennihan.
John Williams, who is Richardson's cousin, began to call out "Cash money," which meant that the Honda had been purchased legitimately. His brother, Joe Williams, 18, walked up and he, too, started yelling. "Cash money." Then the two Williams brothers walked to the apartment house where they lived at 441 E. 117th. St. The patrol car drove slowly down 117th St.
Standing in the doorway of his apartment house, Joe Williams called out, "Cash money, sucker."
The patrol car veered to Williams' side of the street. "Call me a sucker again," D. Lennihan yelled out.
"You sucker," Williams yelled.
Officer D. Lennihan, nightstick in hand, got out of the car, walked up to Williams and announced that he was under arrest for disorderly conduct. Screaming, he said he was giving Williams until the count of three to put his hands behind his back and be handcuffed. Williams did not move. Finally, Lennihan screamed so much that Williams placed his hands behind his back and into handcuffs.
As Williams was led to the patrol car, he said, "I didn't do nothing." He dragged his feet. Lennihan then began shoving Williams and then sprayed him with Mace. Williams fell to the street. Others came into the street and soon there were three patrol cars, six policemen, three young men in handcuffs and people up and down the street calling out angrily about police brutality.
Lebetkin and I, standing on the sidewalk, agreed that it was a matter of false arrest, and a valid, determined attempt by one policeman to start a riot. The cheap bullying by Lennihan of the 25th Precinct could only make things more complicated, more risky, for all those policemen who do the job so well.
I wrote a column about the day and for my efforts was subpoenaed. A judge's name was on the subpoena and it said that if I didn't show up I would be brought in. And now, Friday morning, I stood in the court hallway with Williams, who is 6-feet-4 and wore a dark raincoat, and his brother and cousin, both in blue rain jackets.
A trim guy, dressed immaculately in sports jacket and slacks, came up and introduced himself as Sgt. Bart Arcoleo of the Civilian Complaint Review Board. Arcoleo was present to monitor testimony during the case. I knew that a day or so before this, the police commissioner, McGuire, had been out to lunch with an editor of the Daily News and had said that I had refused to talk about the case to the civilian review board people. Which was untrue, but was typical of McGuire's small-facts style. He is one of those political jobholders who sneaks around newspaper offices and then tells his political friends that he got the newspaper to write an editorial favoring him. He likes that style of operating nearly as much as he seems to enjoy trotting around on a leash held by Koch.
On important things, he comes up a little short. In order to keep his lovely job as police commissioner, McGuire has sat with his mouth shut while the department reached the lowest number of men, and level of effectiveness, in perhaps 15 years. In a city that is at least 50% nonwhite and has primarily a white police force, McGuire has spent four years explaining in tiny details why he cannot find enough qualified Hispanics or blacks out of the millions living here. And now, in a matter involving police doing as they pleased in a poor neighborhood, a complaint that is being heard more and more throughout the city, McGuire's argument was that Breslin hasn't spoken to the Civilian Complaint Review Board. Anyway, when Sgt. Arcoleo introduced himself, I made sure to recognize him. Which was my gain, for he was an extremely pleasant person.
While Arcoleo and I were speaking, a court clerk came down the hallway and Vachss, the lawyer, said, "Did you find the papers?"
"They're checking," the clerk said.
"They can't find the papers for the case," Vachss said.
Arcoleo said quietly, "I called the 25th and was told that Lennihan was not on the roll today and he was not in the diary."
"What does that mean?" I asked.
"He's not working. And they keep a list of court appointments in the diary and he's not in that."
"You mean I'm here and the policeman won't be?" I asked.
Arcoleo said nothing and his face became expressionless.
Vachss said, "Let me go to the clerk's office and see for myself." He walked down the hall and left the rest of us waiting for a matter that was, here in the fall, more difficult than it was when it happened in the spring. The action I saw was on June 7; it was scheduled for its first court hearing on July 22. In the meantime, Lennihan and Joe Williams ran across each other again. On July 5, the same Honda scooter, ridden this time by Joe Williams' brother, was grabbed again by police from the 25th. A wise man in that neighborhood walks the streets with a lion. The police chase scooters. On July 5, Joe Williams, 18, with magnificent common sense, walked down and put his feet into a furnace: He entered the 25th Precinct and inquired about his brother. There, inside the place, Patrolman D. Lennihan arrested Joe Williams for obstructing governmental administration.
I wondered if the second arrest was made because of the newspaper column. It certainly created more trouble for Williams than the first case. The one I witnessed was a violation. But the second charge, obstructing, was a Class A misdemeanor, carrying up to a year in jail. Conviction on the misdemeanor charge also could place Williams into a deep problem with the probation people. Oh, of course, Joe Williams had a past. He was on a five-year felony probation. The Duke of Edinburgh does not reside on 117th St. Vachss, the attorney, felt the first case, the violation, had to be won in court in order to put all the pressure for the second case on Patrolman Lennihan's motives.
And I'm waiting in this courtroom hallway on Friday and I take a look at Joe Williams and I know many people would immediately smirk at my being there as a witness, even involuntarily. He was young, large and black, which at first glance to many people means probably dangerous. Now, tell them that he has a record. That means absolutely dangerous forever. Let him go to jail, they would say, for if he doesn't go in now, he'll only walk around and one day soon there will be carnage in the streets and Joe Williams in a cell, where he always belonged. The idea that Williams, working steadily at a job and wanting to support his new baby, deserves equal treatment under the law eludes most people. The idea of police going through poor neighborhoods and nonchalantly attacking people may sound like a good public safety policy to somebody living in the wretched suburbs, but it is the road to giant trouble in the city of New York.
The Williams case first was scheduled for court on July 22, at which time he pleaded not guilty and was given a trial date of Sept.13. On Sept 8, his lawyer received a letter from the court saying the date had been changed to Sept. 11.
I had a meeting at a publisher's office for the 11th, and immediately canceled it. On the morning of the 11th, I was on my way out the door for court when the lawyer called and asked me to remain by the phone. I sat around for a couple of hours and then received a call from the lawyer. He said the policeman had not shown up and the case was postponed until Sept. 25.
"The cop just doesn't show up?" I asked.
"That's right," Vachss said.
"Did you know he wasn't coming?"
"What would I do if I got paid by the day and took today off?" I asked.
"My client loses a day's pay," Vachss said. "I went to a lot of trouble to get him this job."
And now last Friday, Sept. 25, arrived and everybody was in the courtroom hallway but the policeman. And here was lawyer Vachss walking back from the clerk's office and saying, "The case is off until Oct. 7."
"How does that work?" I asked.
"The clerk said the policeman called and had the case put off."
"He does it on his own?"
"What if I called up and said I couldn't come in because they wouldn't pay me overtime?" I asked Vachss.
"They'd send the police out to bring you in," he said.
Vachss went inside the courtroom, which was sold out. There was a line of standees that started in front of the judge's bench and went all along the wall on one side of the room and continued across the back of the courtroom. It looked like everybody in New York had misbehaved the night before. Here was a commodities broker who had jumped the turnstile at Chambers St., a secretary named Brenda who had walked through the gate at the Delancey station, a young guy arrested for drinking beer in the street and a woman in a black cap who was mad that she was there. She had been arrested for marijuana in her purse.
"How did the police officer find it?" the judge, Martin Rettinger asked.
"They raided a club I was in and they couldn't find who they were looking for, so they just searched everybody," she said.
Now Vachss came up on the matter of Joe Williams. "Have the clerk get in touch with the police officer and find out why he's not here," the judge said.
A police administrative aide, Rita Geller, left the courtroom to make calls. Vachss, Williams and his witnesses sat in the court and watched the supermarket line move around the room. Rita Geller came through a door and told the judge that a lieutenant from the 25th had called on Sept. 21 and said that Sept. 25 would be Lennihan's regular day off and that it would be against departmental rules for him to work overtime by appearing in court for his case. The lieutenant wanted the case postponed until Oct. 7. Rita Geller said that letters were typed on Sept. 21 and mailed either on the 21st or the 22d. Vachss said he had received no notice. Rita Geller also said she had just called the precinct and the desk officer had informed her that he had tried to find Lennihan at his home, but could not.
So the police commissioner can go to lunch on the matter, but he can't even get his own patrolman into court.
The judge said, "I think the people have had sufficient time to prosecute." He dismissed the case. Vachss was not happy. He had wanted to try the case, because he felt it would affect the second case the misdemeanor charge. "Don't be surprised if you get a subpoena for the next case," be told me.
"And that one will get postponed all over the place, too, I suppose?" I said.
Vachss shrugged. I left him standing with his client and I went outside and around to Ferrara's outdoor stand for coffee.
"What are you doing around here?" the woman asked me.
"Nothing," I said.