DELRAY SHOOTING INQUEST Manslaughter charge advised against officer Judge finds shooting of teen not justifiable By Rani Gupta, Jane Musgrave, Meghan Meyer and Dani Davies Palm Beach Post Staff Writers Friday, April 22, 2005 DELRAY BEACH — For the first time since Jerrod Miller was shot and killed by a police officer nearly eight weeks ago, his family feels a sense of peace. County Judge Debra Moses Stephens ruled Thursday that there is probable cause to charge rookie officer Darren Cogoni with manslaughter in the 16-year-old's death. Phyllis Miller (center), whose grandson Jerrod was shot and killed by a rookie police officer, hugs Romaine Martin, president of the NAACP south county branch, after Thursday's ruling. County Judge Debra Moses Stephens hands down her ruling Thursday. 'The court finds officer Darren Cogoni responsible for the death of Jerrod Tramine Miller,' she said, referring to the 16-year-old victim. Stephens emphasized that she does not decide guilt or innocence but said she found "no competent evidence" that the Feb. 26 shooting was justifiable or excusable. "In addition, the court must name the person or persons it believes to be responsible for the death," Stephens said. "The court finds officer Darren Cogoni responsible for the death of Jerrod Tramine Miller." Family attorney Ginger Cartwright wrapped her arm around the shoulders of Miller's grandmother, Phyllis, who nodded, silent, at Stephens' words. Afterward, family members hugged one another and smiled with tears in their eyes. Phyllis Miller said she now felt at peace. "Not complete peace, but peace," she said. Stephens' ruling is nonbinding. It will be up to State Attorney Barry Krischer to decide whether to charge Cogoni. Scott Richardson, one of Cogoni's two attorneys, said he was "disappointed but not surprised" by Stephens' decision. He said Cogoni and his attorneys believe the shooting was justified, and he noted that much of the testimony allowed during the inquest would not be allowed in a trial. "Finding probable cause does not mean officer Cogoni is guilty," Richardson said. "The state attorney is going to have to review all the evidence and make a determination on whether there is reasonable doubt." Krischer spokesman Mike Edmondson said Thursday that it will be two to three weeks before Krischer decides on any possible charges. Krischer called for the inquest because of intense public interest. During the inquest, witnesses testified about seeing Miller drive a borrowed Cadillac onto the campus of the Delray Full Service Center during a school dance. After being questioned by Cogoni, the unlicensed teenager peeled off toward a group of students near the school gymnasium, then turned into a narrow breezeway, witnesses said. Cogoni said in a sworn statement that he fired at Miller because he feared the teen would run over "a large group of people" at the end of the breezeway or in the parking lot it led to. Cogoni fired two shots; one struck Miller in the back of the head. None of the witnesses who testified during the inquest could confirm Cogoni's account, although many said they could not see the area in question during the shooting. A Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigator said that despite interviewing 33 witnesses, he was unable to find anyone in the car's path at the time Cogoni said he fired at Miller. Cogoni's attorneys believe that witnesses in the parking lot area may have fled through an open gate after the shooting. The attorneys point to the testimony of several teenage witnesses who said other students claimed to see Miller's car crash into a building. The only way they could see that, they said, was if they were in the area at the time. Willie Gary, a Stuart attorney representing Miller's family, said the inquest validated what he what he thought all along — that the shooting was "an unjustified killing." "I don't think this was intentional, but this was just gross negligence in the worst kind of way," he said. Gary plans to sue the city, the police department and Cogoni and said he hopes officials will "sit down at the table with him" to settle the lawsuits. Cogoni did not appear during the inquest, to avoid disrupting the proceeding, his attorneys said. Attorney Gary Lippman said Cogoni watched the proceeding on television. Lippman and Richardson prepared him for the ruling. "He's doing as well as anyone could have expected to be doing who has been watching his fate determined on television and hearing people say all sorts of malicious things about him," Lippman said. Phyllis Miller said her family feels their prayers were answered but that more work lies ahead. "Our hurt will be for a long time," she said. "For all citizens — mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters of Delray Beach — we will never be the same. Delray Beach will never be the same." Alberta McCarthy, the only city commissioner to attend the inquest, said she felt she needed to be present as part of a goal to achieve "community unity." "I am very aware that I am the black elected official at this time," McCarthy said. "I am here because this is my city. I am here because I want to view the proceedings firsthand. I want the best for the city." Mayor Jeff Perlman, who attended Miller's funeral, said he was unable to go to the inquest because he had to work. "My hope is that from this tragic situation we take an opportunity to learn from it, so it doesn't happen again and so we grow closer as a community," he said. "We need to seize this moment, which is a painful one." Many people said they hope Miller's death will lead to far-reaching changes in the community. Gary, the Miller family attorney, said any changes would benefit the whole community, although he said the issues in Miller's death affect black residents more than others. "Police violence is not just an issue among young black men, but you have to admit that young black men are just greater targets, there's no doubt about it," he said. Romaine Martin, president of the south county branch of the NAACP, said the group will host a town hall meeting May 21 to help foster better relations by teaching children how to respond when they are approached by police officers. Many of the people who attended the inquest praised the judge's handling of the proceeding. Chuck Ridley, founder of the MAD DADS activist group, said Stephens had an intuitive grasp of the spectators and never prohibited questions, even those that were repetitive or grammatically incorrect. "She gave the community a voice in the proceeding," Ridley said. Miller's father, Ken, said he felt relieved by the ruling but that he knows the process is far from over. "It takes a little of the pressure off," he said. "But we've still got a long way to go." Family members, many of whom wore T-shirts with Miller's picture to the inquest, said they still feel his presence in their lives. Jerrod's twin brother, Sherrod, tall and camera-shy, spoke quietly as he talked about the brother he keeps "in my heart." "I always talk to him every night — tell him, 'I'll be there with you one day,' " he said.