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Burden of Proof

Off-Duty Officer Killer by Fellow Providence Police

Aired February 4, 2000 - 12:30 p.m. ET



COL. URBANO PRIGNANO, PROVIDENCE POLICE CHIEF: Officer Young did not realize that the officers did not recognize him and were ordering him to drop his weapon. Officer Young did not drop his firearm. The two officers fired at Officer Young, believing he was a suspect.

MARY KAY HARRIS, COMMUNITY ACTIVIST: We're not saying that all police are bad, but the ones that they're sending into our community are not sensitive at all.

MAYOR VINCENT A. CIANCI, JR., PROVIDENCE: When someone's pointing a gun at you and you tell them to drop it, and the gun doesn't go down, it's not a question of racism, it's a question of survival.


ROGER COSSACK, CO-HOST: Today on BURDEN OF PROOF: An off-duty police officer is shot by fellow cops after allegedly refusing to drop his weapon. Civil rights groups say he was killed because of the color of his skin. Is his death the result of racial profiling by the Providence Police Department? or a tragic case of mistaken identity?

ANNOUNCER: This is BURDEN OF PROOF with Roger Cossack and Greta Van Susteren.

COSSACK: Hello and welcome to BURDEN OF PROOF. Greta is off today.

Last Friday, in Providence, Rhode Island, off-duty police officer Cornell Young, Jr., witnessed a suspect confronting two fellow officers outside a restaurant. Young rushed to help with his gun drawn. According to police, the on-duty cops ordered Young to drop his weapon. And when he didn't, they shot and killed him. The two officers are now on paid administrative leave while the state attorney general investigates the facts.

Joining us today from Providence is Mayor Vincent Cianci. Also in Providence, editor Tom Heslin of "The Providence Journal." And here in Washington, Audrey Umphenour (ph), criminal defense attorney Ron Sullivan, and Sean Pohl (ph). And in the back, Nathan Mattison (Ph) and Steve Schwann (ph).

Let's go right to Tom Heslin.

Tom, tell us about the events and what happened that night?

TOM HESLIN, "THE PROVIDENCE JOURNAL": Sure, Roger. This tragedy unfolded in the early morning hours, last Friday. A Providence patrolman, Cornell Young, Jr., 29, he was off duty at all-night diner in Providence, waiting for a sandwich, and a fight broke out, spilled into the parking lot. He apparently watched this. At some point, a gun was drawn. The manager of the restaurant called 911.

At some point, Patrolman Young, who was in plain clothes, pulled his service weapon and moved to the door, announced in the diner that he was with the police and moved out through the door.

Meanwhile, the two Providence police officers were responding to the 911 call and arrived at the scene, saw a man, not Officer Young, but the initial man waving the gun in the parking lot, ordered him to put the gun down, and with their -- within a matter of seconds here, apparently, thought that Officer Young was a suspect involved in the altercation, and shot him -- the two responding police officers fired six shot, three of them struck Officer Young. And he was -- he died shortly thereafter.

Officer Young is a black man -- was a black man, the son of the highest-ranking black officer in the Providence Police Department, Major Cornell Young. And the two officers who responded to the call that night are white.

Since that time, the city has been swept up in this controversy with allegations from the minority communities that Officer Young is dead because he was a black man and the...

COSSACK: Tom, let me interrupt you for just a second. If you could perhaps draw the picture a little clearer for me, in the sense, what was the physical characteristics of that area? was it a small area? was there a large -- was there a lot of noise going on? was it possible that the police officer didn't hear the other officers?

HESLIN: That -- so, we're in an all-night diner in a working class neighborhood of Providence, maybe 20 or so people in the diner. This diner has been the scene of, you know, some problems in the past, and it was busy. There was a lot going on there.

When this -- the problem spilled out into the parking lot, it is clear, there was a lot of shouting, yelling. It is very -- and the notion here that Officer Young just didn't hear the patrolman, that they didn't hear him yell, if he did, he was an officer. You have got to -- you know, the answer to the call here went -- and I don't know how well the watches were synchronized, but the first call for the manager apparently was 1:43. And the officers, we believe, radioed their arrival at 1:44 a.m. We're talking about a pretty rapid sequence of events here.

COSSACK: All right, mayor, there is now charge -- your administration and the city of Providence is now wracked with charges of racism. What are you doing to investigate this matter? CIANCI: Well, the first thing I can tell you is that the city of Providence is a city that we're very proud of, and I can tell you that what we had was an incident the other evening that had four elements to it. And I wasn't there, and no one who's on this program was there. So we don't really know what happened.

But I was in a mayor's conference in Washington, and I received the call that this happened. And when I got off the plane, when I returned home, there were all reporters there, and I will tell you what I told them. I told them, at that time, that this was, from what I knew at time, was adrenaline-charged atmosphere, case of mistaken identity. In addition to that, it was the availability of guns.

And I think that we shouldn't lose sight of that issue there because that's why those two police officers responded because there was a man who had a gun, illegally possessed it, and used it.

COSSACK: Mayor, how do you respond specifically to the charge that this officer was shot because these white officers saw a black man and just assumed he was the suspect?

CIANCI: I think that what we need do is we need to take a deep breath, call for calm, and we ought to have this investigated, and it is being investigated, and it should be, and if racial profiling is part of that mix, then it ought to be investigated and we ought to identify it. But I'm not ready to say one way or the other. I don't know, I wasn't there.

I do know that Cornell Young's father and his mother have both called for the same thing. His mother had a press conference about 10 minutes ago, and said that she wanted to see the city, not her son die in vane, that he wouldn't want that to happen, and he would want to see an investigation completed before we act on supposition, and we act on conjecture, and what is said: he said, she said, who said. We don't have a coroner's report yet, we don't have a ballistics report yet, and it needs to be investigated, albeit by the proper agencies.

COSSACK: Now, mayor, the attorney general is doing the investigation for the city of Rhode Island, and there are some people that believe that he cannot be fair because of other things that he has done in the past. How do you respond to the fairness of the attorney general?

CIANCI: I think the attorney general is a fine attorney general. A little while ago, about three minutes ago, or 10 minutes ago, I learned the governor of our state called for involvement of the federal government. Whoever comes in to investigate it, whoever comes in, whether it's the attorney general, and I think he has the sworn responsibility to do it, I hope the result is fair, is honest, and gets to the bottom of everything, including whether or not there was racial profiling.

On the surface of it, obviously, to the police officers who work for the city, they'll tell you they don't think it's racial profiling; if you talk to community groups or minister's alliance people, they'll tell you that there was racial profiling. I think that it all has to be investigated. And I think, that when we come here later, if we are invited, with the results of that investigation, we can be a lot more specific and a lot more sure of what we say.

COSSACK: Well, mayor, you will be invited back with the results of that investigation. But in terms of the investigation, what is the first step that's going to be done. What do you expect the attorney general to do?

CIANCI: Well, the attorney general, in fact, I just spoke to him before I came on the set here, because I wanted to chat with him for just a minute or to. He has the sworn responsibility legally in Rhode Island to take this to a grand jury. When the officers who assist him become agents of that grand jury, they work for him, they don't work for the city of Providence police department. That's the way the new rules are.

I can also tell you without any hesitation that we need to get the coroner's report, the ballistics report. And he is the one who is supposed to charge -- who is supposed to carry out the investigation.

COSSACK: Mayor, why is that so important? We know what happened here. We know that the police officers, either intentionally or mistakenly, shot the other officer, and we know what guns were used. Why do you need a ballistics report?

CIANCI: Well, because I think it's very important to see what guns were fired, or what weapon was used, who fired it, where it went, what was the angle. And I think that is just basic. You can never prove a case without a ballistics report in a case like this or a coroner's report.

And I think that we ought to take it slow, that the people demand an investigation, it has to be investigated, there's nothing new about the investigative process, and whoever investigates it. And, fine, if other agencies want to join in, that's fine with me; it's fine with the attorney general, I believe.

COSSACK: All right, Mayor Vincent Cianci and Tom Heslin, thank you for joining us today from Providence.

Up next, how will this case be investigated and prosecuted if it needs to be prosecuted? Stay with us.


One year ago today, 22-year-old West African immigrant Amadou Diallo was killed when four New York City police officers fired 41 bullets at him. Diallo had his beeper and wallet with him; the police thought they saw a gun. The four officers are currently on trial for second-degree murder and reckless endangerment. They will face up to 25 years to life in prison if convicted.


(COMMERCIAL BREAK) COSSACK: Good news for our Internet-savvy viewers: You can now watch BURDEN OF PROOF live on the Worldwide Web. Just log onto and click your way to the BURDEN OF PROOF link. We now provide a live video feed, Monday through Friday at 12:30 p.m. Eastern time. And if you miss that live show, the program is available on the site at any time via video-on-demand.

A 28-year-old member of the Providence, Rhode Island police force was buried this week. Cornell Young Jr., while off duty, approached fellow cops with his gun drawn. He was shot at the scene.

And joining us now from Providence's former Rhode Island Attorney General Jeffrey Pine.

Jeff, the attorney general of Rhode Island is now charged with investigating this tragic event. You're a former Rhode Island -- you're former attorney general, how would you start doing it if it was your responsibility?

JEFFREY PINE, FORMER ATTORNEY GENERAL, RHODE ISLAND: Well, as you mentioned, Roger, the attorney general in Rhode Island is really the district attorney as well as the attorney general, and what they need to do with some expedition is to embark on an investigation by finding out frame by frame and piece by piece what happened in those crucial seconds when Officer Young lost his life when the other police officers responded to the scene and did their job.

We need to find out in almost millisecond kind of way what the nature of the communication was between the officers and Sergeant Young, as well as who said what to whom and who identified themselves to each other, in order to determine where the responsibility for this action really lies.

COSSACK: How do you go about doing that, Jeff?

PINE: Well, I imagine that statements will be taken before a grand jury,; that one, if it hasn't been empaneled already, will be empaneled shortly. And whether or not there are other agencies assisting the attorney general's prosecutors, you could have the state police involved, you could have the FBI involved, in addition to Providence Police themselves.

COSSACK: Ron Sullivan, the person who was involved in this fight, the original suspect that the police came to see and that Officer Young came out to assist, has now been arrested for felony murder. What is felony murder?

RON SULLIVAN, CRIMINAL DEFENSE ATTORNEY: Well, at common law, felony murder is homicide arising out of the perpetuation of a felony or the attempted perpetuation of a felony and a death occurs. And whether that death was intended or not, the person perpetuating the felony is liable for murder.

COSSACK: OK, give us an example. Suppose -- give us a bank robbery example. SULLIVAN: Right. The typical example is two people go in to rob a bank -- you and I go in and rob a bank. I have a gun, get nervous and shoot the security guard. You didn't intend for me to shoot this security guard, you just wanted money. The security guard dies. Both you and I would be charged for murder under the felony murder rule because bank robbery is a felony and a death occurred in the perpetuation of that felony.

COSSACK: All right, what if I was outside sitting in the car. Let's go back to the bank robbery example, and I'm now not even inside the bank, I'm the getaway driver, and you go in and rob the bank and a shooting occurs and a death occurs. Could I be charged with murder?

SULLIVAN: You could be charged. It's a harder case as to whether or not that charge would stand or as to whether or not you would be convicted. In some jurisdictions, even as what's called an aider and abettor, under that sort of theory, you could be held liable for murder. In other jurisdictions, as the so-called getaway driver, the question is whether it is foreseeable that a death could occur based on your participation in the felony. So it becomes a more technical legal question.

COSSACK: Jeff, don't you feel somewhat unusual to have charged Mr. Diaz (ph) under the felony murder rule, which we just had explained to us? He was apparently involved in a fight and these police officers show up and a tragic killing occurred, but clearly Diaz had nothing to do with it?

PINE: Well, in Rhode Island, if you embark on inherently dangerous felony, you can be held responsible for the foreseeable results of that felony. Mr. Diaz introduced the weapon into the fray, and therefore the question becomes: Is it foreseeable that when police officers arrive, that very bad things can happen when you have weapons drawn.

And so the ultimate question, as far as Mr. Diaz's participation and ultimate responsibility is concerned, is: Did his introduction of the weapon constitute an inherently dangerous felony? He did have prior convictions by the way, so he was not supposed to have that weapon. Secondly, did his participation end when he dropped the weapon? And third, did the resulting shoot-out between the officers mistaking Cornell Young for a suspect, was that a foreseeable result of the original criminal activity. So those are the issues that ultimately will have to be decided based on the facts as they're presented.

COSSACK: Ron, and from a defense standpoint, how do you defend against this charge?

SULLIVAN: Well, I think that the former attorney general's second point is most salient with respect to defending Mr. Diaz, whether, when he was ordered to drop the weapon -- and he did -- whether his participation in the event, in the felony, ended sufficiently so as to break the causal link that leads to murder. In the end, it's a question of causality. One of the basic premises of our judicial system is that the defendant has to have caused the act that resulted in the murder, in the death. Lawyers call it proximate cause, which simply means whether it's a legal cause. And that's going to be the salient factual question, I think.

COSSACK: All right, let's take a break.

Up next, will the two police officers be criminally charged in this case? And how would an attorney build a defense? Stay with us.


Q: What is the composition of the Albany, New York, jury seated in the case of the Bronx death of West African immigrant Amadou Diallo?

A: Six men and six women. Two of the women and all of the men are white; four of the women are black. The four alternatives are all white men.



COSSACK: Prosecutors are looking into the death of police officer Cornell Young Jr.. Young was killed by two fellow officers who claim they mistook him for a suspect.

Well, Jeffrey, one of the problems I think that the police officers are going to face in this matter is that it's been alleged and that the -- Cornell Young Jr. was shot by a fellow classmate of his. Now, doesn't that make it more difficult to say that they didn't recognize him, and doesn't that sort of rear the ugly head of racism even more?

PINE: Well, it's certainly a factor that's going to have to be considered, that these officers did serve together. On the other hand, Mr. Young, Officer Young, was not dressed in uniform, it was dark, it was confusing, it's a large police department, and so it is understandable that not every police officer will recognize another police officer unless they identify themselves properly in the heat of the battle.

COSSACK: Ron, what do we do in situations like this? I mean, let's now go the other way and say that these were three men in a -- thrown together in a terrible situation and a tragedy occurred. You know, how do you protect from these kinds of things?

SULLIVAN: Well, I think it hearkens back to the lessons that we have not quite learned yet respecting racial profiling. While I do not -- this does not look like a typical race case, say, the dragging case in Kentucky. No one is suggesting that these officers and said, let's shoot a black guy. That just didn't happen here. But let's be explicit by what we mean by racial profiling. That is the stereotypic racial ascriptions that people subconsciously make. They are generalizations that have hardened into essences about black people. Black men in certain neighborhoods equals criminal. Black men in certain neighborhoods with gun equals dangerous criminal that we have to use deadly force.

Now, these subconscious notions that we call racial stereotyping come to the forefront of an individual's mind in a very quick situation, then we sometimes have results like this. The question is, and you can never test it, whether if the officers, were they in the exact same position and another gentleman came out who was not a racial minority, whether deadly force would have been used. There's no way to do a laboratory-controlled test for that sort of situation, so we don't know.

But what we have to do is, again, train officers very carefully in terms of when the use of deadly force is appropriate or not and also to sort of move people away from these over-generalizations, these rigid generalization about, particularly, black men and criminality.

COSSACK: Jeff, can we train police officers so that these kinds of events will not occur?

PINE: I think the training is one component. Certainly at the academy they need to be trained if there's a code word that police officers need to use when they are undercover. He could have been an undercover detective in that bar that evening and would have needed to identify himself either by badge or by a code word for that week or that month or that day. Certainly, training is a component.

We would like to think that racial stereotyping did not play a role in the officer's decisions on when to fire and how to fire, but ultimately that's a very precise legal question that needs to be answered in terms of their conduct.

So, training is a component, and training as to racial stereotypes is part of that in order to avoid this kind of situation.

COSSACK: All right, that's all the time we have for today. Thanks to our guests and thank you for watching.

On Monday, unfortunately we're going to report on another police shooting case. Four New York City police officers are on trial for the murder of an African immigrant. Our guest Monday will be criminal defense attorney Johnnie Cochran, and we'll see you then on another edition of BURDEN OF PROOF.


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