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Troopers Reach Deal in N.J. Shooting

January 12, 2002|JOSH GETLIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — Two New Jersey state troopers who fired 11 shots at a van carrying minority passengers reached a plea bargain with the state Friday, avoiding a trial on charges of attempted murder, attorneys said.

Troopers John Hogan and James Kenna are expected to plead guilty Monday to lesser charges, according to defense attorney Robert Galantucci. As part of the agreement, federal prosecutors will drop any plans to get involved in the controversial 1998 case. "It's over. There will be no prosecution from the federal authorities," Galantucci said.

Although details of the plea remained under wraps, both men are expected to serve probation rather than prison time and to resign from the state police force, sources close to the case said. State and federal attorneys did not comment or return phone calls Friday.

The shooting on the New Jersey Turnpike, which sparked a nationwide protest concerning racial profiling, led to sweeping reforms in the Garden State's police tactics and admissions by officials that minority motorists had been targeted.

The case also shook up the state politically, embarrassing former Gov. Christie Whitman and triggering an unsuccessful effort to impeach Peter G. Verniero, a member of the state Supreme Court. Verniero, who was attorney general at the time of the shooting, was accused by legislators of covering up the incidence of racial profiling.

New Jersey minority leaders had charged that Hogan and Kenna's behavior was widespread among troopers. While state officials initially defended the agency against charges of racism, Whitman and others eventually pledged to root out police behavior that they admitted had led to the shooting.

Under pressure from the U.S. Justice Department, which had threatened to sue the state for violating motorists' civil rights, New Jersey officials vowed to eliminate racial profiling, a practice in which police pull over a disproportionate number of minority drivers based solely on race. Studies at the time showed that minorities accounted for 30% of turnpike traffic but made up more than 70% of drivers stopped.

In April 1998, the two troopers pulled over a van carrying four men: three blacks and one Latino. They were headed to a basketball clinic in North Carolina; none of them was armed.

What should have been a routine traffic stop for speeding turned violent when the van accidentally shifted into reverse and began rolling slowly toward the approaching officers, according to court documents. Hogan and Kenna together fired 11 shots into the van, wounding three of the men.

State investigators later concluded the troopers were not in imminent physical danger, as they had claimed, and that they had fired unnecessarily. The defendants settled a lawsuit with New Jersey for $12.95 million.

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