A number of celebrities have signed a letter urging the Department of Justice to reopen a 2010 case in which a Black unarmed college student was fatally shot by a police officer in New York.
Danroy Henry Jr. was shot and killed by Pleasantville police officer Aaron Hess after officers responded to reports of a rowdy crowd outside a restaurant that was a popular hangout spot for Pace University students.
The letter — signed by Rihanna, Jay-Z, Pharrell Williams, Charlize Theron, Taraji P. Henson, Odell Beckham Jr., Michael Williams, Kerry Washington, Mary J. Blige and Gabrielle Union — asks U.S. Attorney General William Barr to investigate possible police misconduct in the killing of Henry, reports Page Six.
Henry was in his car unarmed when Hess knocked on the window. Police said that instead of stopping, the 20-year-old continued driving.
Hess said that when he stepped in front of the car, it hit him forcefully enough to send him onto the roof.
Michael Sussman, the family’s attorney, said Henry was driving slowly when Hess lunged at the car and shot through the windshield.
Hess killed Henry and injured Stonehill College football player Brandon Cox, who was a passenger in the car, according to Lohud.
The celebrity group is requesting the Department of Justice to determine whether there was a pattern of discrimination that led to the fatal shooting.
“If it did — deliver the justice that restores this young man’s name and reputation, while giving hope to other young black men who are just like him and desperate for change,” the letter states.
Danroy Henry Sr. told Page Six that the family welcomes the support.
“We appreciate that they’re sort of leaning into the moment and that they’re willing to stand behind us on this really important matter,” Henry Sr. said.
The group hopes that the anticipated nominee for the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, Jay Clayton, will reinvestigate this case. Clayton is set to replace current U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman, Page Six reported.
Hess was acquitted by a grand jury in 2011. In 2015, the U.S. attorney’s office, which was then held by Preet Bhara, said it would not bring federal charges against the officer because the evidence in the shooting failed to establish the “exacting standard of criminal intent” required for criminal charges, according to The Herald News.
Henry Jr.’s family settled with the town of Mount Pleasant for a deal that included a $250,000 contribution to the DJ Henry Dream Fund — a charity established in the young man’s honor that provides college scholarships — as well as a public apology. They also received $6 million in a separate federal lawsuit with the village of Pleasantville.
Henry Jr.'s family called the incident "reckless and inexcusable” and said that the officer was unjustified in the shooting of their loved one. They also said that the college student was refused medical aid after he was taken from the vehicle, Lohud reported.
According to the family, the officers handcuffed Henry Jr. after pulling him from the car and left him on the ground bleeding.
The letter to Barr asks that comments made by a second Pleasantville police officer two years after the incident be taken into account. The officer, Ronald Beckley, said he shot at Hess, who he didn’t initially realize was an officer, after he presumed that Hess was the assailant. The statement added to further speculation about what exactly took place in the exchange between Hess and the late Henry Jr.
Henry Sr. said that he is unsure if the grand jury was ever given that information because the jury heard testimonies before Beckley’s statement was made public.
“The facts of this case reek of local conflict of interest, racial bias and even false testimony,” the letter states. “Justice it appears has been denied.”
Henry Sr. said that there is also other evidence in which Hess admits he could have stepped out of the way of Henry Jr.’s car when it was about 30 feet in front of him.
“As the Department knows, this agonizing case remains an unhealed wound for the Henry family and the people of New York. More concerning, even a cursory review of the fact pattern of what occurred distills more questions than answers,” the letter states. “The facts support this request, the law all but requires it, and justice — it demands it.”
In June Helen Jonsen, a spokeswoman for Westchester County District Attorney Anthony Scarpino Jr., said there were no plans to reopen the case.
“The case could only be reopened if new evidence was discovered,” she said.
At the time of the initial lawsuit, Sussman said that while Henry Jr. can never be brought back, lessons can be learned from the incident.
“We can never bring DJ back, and his family must bear the agony of his loss," Sussman said. "But we can take lessons from this event which makes its repetition less likely."
Sussman said police officers need to be selected more carefully and trained to use deadly force only when necessary and that instances like Henry Jr.’s need to be investigated before statements are released “based on stereotypes and defensiveness.”
"Only if we learn and implement these lessons can anything positive come from this tragedy,” he said.
Henry Jr.’s mother, Angella Henry, said cases like those of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery resurrect memories of her son’s death. She said they are still hoping for justice in her son’s case and hope protests sparked by Floyd’s killing bring legislative change.
“We’d welcome a reexamination into our son’s case,” she said. “All of the evidence is there, we just need someone with the courage to convict all those involved.”