Four Kentucky officers cleared by grand jury

(LOUISVILLE, Ky.) -- The four Louisville police officers involved in an altercation that ended in the fatal shooting of Rodney Abernathy in Chickasaw Park last June will not face criminal charges, a Jefferson County grand jury decided yesterday.

''As a result of its thorough review of this violent incident and its examination of all available evidence, the grand jury chooses not to indict anyone for criminal wrongdoing in Mr. Abernathy's loss of life,'' according to a the jurors' report.

David Friedman, an attorney for Abernathy's family, said yesterday that they were disappointed with the decision. ''We'll consider what steps the family wishes to take,'' he said.

The grand jury spent the day Tuesday investigating the circumstances surrounding Abernathy's death, Commonwealth's Attorney Dave Stengel said at a news conference yesterday.

Stengel said the jury's decision was consistent with the findings of a six- member panel that included attorneys and detectives with the commonwealth's attorney's office.

''When you get into the facts of the situation you see how he (Abernathy) was repeatedly attacking the officers, trying to take guns from them (but) not really trying to hurt them,'' Stengel said. ''It's our belief that he was actually trying to get them to kill him.''

Abernathy, 37, had a history of mental illness. Unarmed, he was shot 15 times in the altercation with police about 3 a.m. on June 25. He died of a bullet wound to the head.

The four officers involved in the altercation - Fred Helm, Maurice Hendricks, Derrick Leachman and Willie Williams - were placed on paid administrative leave after the shooting, but have since returned to duty. Two lawyers representing the officers did not return telephone calls yesterday.

DURING THE incident, officers fired 24 rounds, according to testimony presented during a coroner's inquest in September. Louisville Police Sgt. Michael Veto, who handled the department's homicide investigation, testified that all of the officers but Williams fired shots.

Helm fired the last shot, which is believed to be the one that hit Abernathy in the head, causing his death, according to testimony.

Leachman, in a taped interview with police, said that he fired two to five shots at Abernathy, but that Abernathy, who was 6 feet 1 inch tall and 214 pounds, charged again. Leachman said he then fired at least 15 or 20 rounds.

Because an internal investigation into the shooting is still pending, the police department would not comment on the grand jury's decision, said Detective Bill Keeling, a spokesman.

THE FBI office in Louisville has completed its investigation into the shooting, which was considered a ''potential federal violation'' of Abernathy's civil rights, according to Supervisory Special Agent David Beyer. A report was submitted to the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 21, said Beyer, a spokesman for the FBI in Kentucky.

''The report will be reviewed to determine whether any federal laws have been violated and a prosecutive decision will be made by the Department of Justice,'' Beyer said, adding that the review could take several months.

Rhonda Mathies, chairwoman of the Kentucky Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, said group members are outraged that no officers were indicted. No one is holding police officers accountable, she said.

THE ALTERCATION between Abernathy and the police came after he wrecked his car along the road in Chickasaw Park. Officers observed him hitting himself in the head with a car jack. He then charged at officers, according to recorded statements by officers that were played during the coroner's inquest.

All of the officers said they tried throughout the struggle to talk to Abernathy and get him to calm down. Some hit him with their batons and some sprayed him with pepper spray.

Stengel said that when people hear how many shots were fired, their first response is, '' 'My God, what could have happened there - he was unarmed.' ''

''No one feels Mr. Abernathy should have died, but no one could find a place in which any police officer did anything wrong,'' Stengel said.

ABERNATHY'S DEATH has spurred change in the police department's training in dealing with people with mental illness.

Jim Dailey, president of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill in Louisville, said officers will receive four hours of training on mental health issues starting in January.

Dailey also said the department is looking into the possibility of setting up a crisis intervention team, like those in other cities, in which groups of specially trained officers are called on to assist in situations involving a mentally ill person.

Dailey said he and two others - one of them a Louisville police commander - will go to Memphis, Tenn., next week to learn about its program.

''We're going down to see if that's the kind of thing we can bring to Louisville,'' Dailey said.

He added that perhaps Abernathy's death was not in vain.

''Some very positive things have come out of this in terms of building a bridge between Louisville police and the mental health services community,'' Dailey said.

Caption: Rodney Abernathy, who had a history of mental illness, was shot 15 times during an altercation with Louisville police in Chickasaw Park about 3 a.m. June 25.


Caption: Helm

Caption: Hendricks

Caption: Leachman

Caption: Williams

The four police officers above were placed on administrative leave after the shooting. They have since returned to duty. Grand Jury Won't Indict Louisville Police Officers Involved In Fatal Shooting Shannon Tangonan, The Courier-Journal November 30, 2000, Thursday Met/Metro Copyright 2000 The Courier-Journal The Courier-Journal (Louisville, KY.) November 30, 2000, Thursday Met/Metro Terms and Conditions Copyright(c) 2000 LEXIS-NEXIS, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights Reserved.

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