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White Officer Is Acquitted in Black Motorist's Death

Law: Pittsburgh jury's verdict angers African American activists. Policeman says he hopes to return to the streets.

November 14, 1996|From Associated Press

PITTSBURGH — Angering black activists, an all-white jury acquitted a white police officer Wednesday in the death of a black motorist who investigators say suffocated in a scuffle with officers during a traffic stop.

The verdict came in the death of Jonny Gammage, a 31-year-old cousin of Pittsburgh Steelers defensive lineman Ray Seals.

Blacks chanted, "No justice, no peace!" and an angry crowd of about 50 formed outside the courthouse after John Vojtas, a 40-year-old officer in suburban Brentwood, was cleared of involuntary manslaughter.

"By any means necessary, justice will be served," said Henry White, who is black. "A jury of peers does not mean all white."

Vojtas, who could have gotten up to five years in prison, dropped his head and wept after the verdict, on which the jury deliberated more than two days. As he left the courthouse, Vojtas said, "Praise the Lord," and sheriff's deputies escorted him through an angry crowd.

Vojtas said he hoped to return to police work.

"I'm sorry that a tragic accident happened last year, or a little over a year ago. I know I'm going to learn from this accident. I hope to get trained better," Vojtas said. "I hope that other policemen in our department and surrounding areas, in fact, the world, can learn from this tragic accident and that this thing never happens again."

Gammage was pulled over in Pittsburgh on Oct. 12, 1995, by officers who had started chasing him outside the city. The police said he had been driving erratically, tapping the brakes of a Jaguar owned by Seals.

Gammage emerged from the car carrying a cellular phone that police said they thought was a gun. A struggle broke out, and officers subdued Gammage by pressing on his back and neck. The coroner ruled that he suffocated, but defense lawyers argued that he could have died from exhaustion or an adrenaline rush.

Vojtas was initially suspended but has been back on the force in a desk job since January. Brentwood's police chief said he will consult with city leaders to determine if Vojtas can return to the streets.

Prosecutor Anthony Krastek said of the jury: "I don't know what they were thinking, or what they felt was missing in our case."

Gammage's girlfriend, Jean Leflore of Syracuse, N.Y., said: "This man is a murderer, and they're letting him walk the streets. All [Gammage] did was struggle to breathe and live. And they beat him like a dog."

Outside the courthouse, members of the African American Coalition for Justice rang bells loudly.

"This is not justice. It's not right," said Michelle Butler, a coalition member.

The jury foreman, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the jurors did not believe that the prosecution presented enough evidence for them to convict Vojtas. "There was reasonable doubt," he said.

Prosecutors argued that Vojtas instigated the fight by striking Gammage, then used too much force when he knelt on the motorist's back. The defense said Vojtas, his thumb bitten to the bone, left the fight at least 10 minutes before Gammage died.

"I hope he dies," Vojtas said as Gammage lay motionless on the ground. The officer later explained he made the comment only in anger over his thumb injury and never expected the motorist to die.

Two other suburban officers, Lt. Milton Mulholland and Patrolman Michael Albert, are charged with involuntary manslaughter, but their case ended in a mistrial when a coroner blurted out improper testimony last month. A new trial will be held next year.

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