WASHINGTON — The Justice Department, reflecting government concern about questions of excessive force by U.S. Park Police, said Thursday that it will review the shooting death of a man who brandished a knife in front of the White House.
The criminal section of the department's civil rights division does not usually get involved in potential brutality cases at such an early stage, but chief department spokesman Carl Stern said that representatives of the division and of U.S. Atty. Eric H. Holder Jr.'s office agreed to review an investigation of the matter conducted by the Metropolitan Police Department.
Marcelino Corniel, 33, the knife-wielding man shot Tuesday in the abdomen and right leg, died Wednesday night after undergoing two lengthy surgical procedures at George Washington University Hospital.
Questions were raised after a videotape of the incident, broadcast repeatedly on television here, showed Corniel standing still in front of a ring of Park Police and Secret Service officers on Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House. He fell to the sidewalk as he was shot.
However, an affidavit by FBI agent Scott M. Salter, filed in connection with federal charges against Corniel on Wednesday, described him carrying a large knife in his left hand and pursuing a Park Police officer shortly before he was shot.
"Obviously we're saddened by anybody being killed in a random act of violence," said Dee Dee Myers, the White House press secretary. "It again underscores the nature of violence in our society and that nobody is immune."
Myers would not be drawn into a discussion of the propriety of the incident. "I'm certainly not going to stand here and second-guess the decision of a law enforcement officer made in a difficult time and neither is the President or anyone here," she said.
Milton Grimes, a Newport Beach attorney who said that he would investigate Corniel's death at the request of Corniel's family, said: "It appears to me that he was not physically able to pose a threat to a kindergartner, much less a police officer. . . . It looks as though there was excessive force."
However, Salter's affidavit, throughout which Corniel's name is misspelled, said that Park Police Officer Stephen J. O'Neill observed him in Lafayette Park, across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House, about 6:30 a.m. Tuesday.
Corniel was sitting on blankets with four cups of McDonald's coffee, the affidavit said, and O'Neill, recognizing him as a regular visitor to the park, "acknowledged" him and continued to make his rounds.
About half an hour later, O'Neill assumed his foot patrol assignment on the sidewalk directly in front of the White House and minutes later "observed a sudden movement from Lafayette Park which caught his attention," Salter's affidavit said.
O'Neill saw Corniel running toward him, holding "a large knife in his left hand. O'Neill ordered Corniel to stop and then ran to the east, away from Corniel, toward where he knew there were U.S. Secret Service Uniform Division officers stationed. Corniel pursued O'Neill, chasing him at a close distance."
O'Neill called for help on his radio and, after running 150 feet, was joined by Secret Service officers and another Park Police officer.
"At that point, Corniel stopped and he was confronted by O'Neill and the other officers, who ordered him to drop the knife and then ordered him to lie on the ground," Salter's affidavit said. Corniel refused both orders and "was then shot twice by one of the other officers" who had joined O'Neill.
He then was disarmed and taken to the hospital.
Salter said that the affidavit was based on his own investigation and the comments of other FBI agents as well as officers of the Park Police, Secret Service and Washington Metropolitan Police.
Elsewhere Thursday, the Associated Press reported that more of Corniel's background came to light from court records in Southern California. He was charged in 1984 in Los Angeles County Superior Court in Compton with attempted murder, assault with a deadly weapon--a knife--and with intent to inflict bodily injury.
Probation officer Aubrey Dunn said that Corniel had stabbed David Chavez in a gang-related fight that began when Corniel and friends were looking for a party, the AP said.
Corniel served four months in jail before pleading guilty before Superior Court Judge Kurt Lewin, who placed him on probation and ordered him to stay away from the gang.
The South Bay Daily Breeze reported that Corniel also had been arrested for armed robbery in Santa Monica in 1985 and for assault with a deadly weapon in 1986.
In May, 1992, Corniel was arrested in Carson and charged with violating curfew during the Los Angeles riots. He pleaded no contest and was sentenced to the five days he had already served.
The AP reported that Corniel was nearly killed in August, 1992, when the car he was driving crashed and caught fire in Wilmington, Calif. He was treated for second- and third-degree burns over 80% of his body at Torrance Memorial Medical Center.
Corniel had extensive reconstruction surgery but failed to appear last Aug. 3 for scheduled additional surgery. His sister and her husband, with whom he had lived, filed a missing-person report on Aug. 26.
Also Thursday, the White House confirmed that an unarmed man was arrested by the Secret Service on Wednesday for allegedly attempting to force his way through a guard booth at the perimeter of the White House grounds. "He never made it onto the grounds," a White House spokeswoman said.