Still fighting for DJ Henry

July 26, 2012

On October 17, 2010, 20-year-old Pace University student and football player Danroy "DJ" Henry was shot by Pleasantville police officer Aaron Hess, as he was driving outside a bar in Thornwood, N.Y. DJ was dragged from his car, handcuffed and, as footage from a police car dashboard camera shows, left bleeding on the pavement as he screamed for help, while medical responders attended to Hess.

Friends who tried to help DJ were threatened and Tasered, and others who tried to approach him were held back by police officers with their guns drawn. Eventually a Pace graduate student administered CPR, but it was too late. Some 40 minutes later, DJ was pronounced dead at Westchester Medical Center.

After an autopsy, officials declared that DJ had been drunk that night, contradicting accounts that he was "totally functional and coherent in the period before," according to attorney Michael Sussman. In February 2011, a Westchester County grand jury refused to indict Officer Aaron Hess, who was also later awarded "Officer of the Year" by his police union.

The Henrys filed a wrongful death civil lawsuit in federal court, and the case is still under investigation by the Department of Justice for violations of DJ's civil rights. On July 10, 2012, a federal judge refused to dismiss another lawsuit brought against Officer Hess by DJ's former classmates and teammates who were assaulted that night, allowing several of the other civil claims to proceed against him. New evidence, including audio tapes and witness statements, have since been released by attorneys for the Henry family.

Almost two years later, DJ's name and legacy have been kept alive by his family. A scholarship fund set up in his name, the DJ Dream Fund, has helped 400 children in the Greater Boston area. Hip-hop artists Jay-Z and Kanye West dedicated their song "Murder to Excellence" to "the memory of Danroy Henry." In March 2012, a clock tower dedicated to DJ was unveiled outside the Goldstein Health and Fitness Center on the Pleasantville Campus of Pace University.

DJ's grandfather Wayne Dozier and I am DJ Henry activist Leondra Hawkesworth spoke with Akunna Eneh and Sofia Arias about the ongoing struggle to win justice.

COULD YOU tell us about who DJ was?

Wayne: DJ was the oldest of three children of Danroy and Angella Henry. He was my oldest grandchild. He died one week before his 21st birthday. He was a fun-loving young man, a fun-loving kid. He was a shy guy, very shy when he was younger, maybe insecure because he was so skinny and lanky. But once he came into his own, he had a glow about him that people were attracted to.

You know when people say "he has it"--he had that quality that would attract other people. A giving individual. A hard worker--even though he didn't have to look for work, he did look for work. He worked with me for a summer--I'm a construction worker, a carpenter. He helped me build, renovate a basement, put up ceiling and walls, plumbing, electrical. Danny was right there.

As far as his relationship with his brother and sister, they got high marks for him. Everybody loved Danny because he was a giving and caring spirit. He'll never be forgotten.

Leondra: Actually, I didn't know who DJ was. I found out about DJ two days after. It was when his story was covered on Channel 5. His family was on there. My mother who happens to work with DJ's grandmother told me that this was Peggy's grandson. I just started college, and a month earlier, a couple of my friends had gotten shot to death. So I didn't really want to be bothered with it.

Danroy "DJ" Henry
Danroy "DJ" Henry

Then there was the day of the memorial, which was supposed to be DJ's 21st birthday. I still didn't want to watch it, but my mother asked me to watch it. I wanted to go, and I ended up not going because it was overcrowded. People said that if you didn't know DJ at all, you knew him. So I felt like I knew him during the memorial.

I held in tears until after they started singing "Happy Birthday" to him. After that, I thought, how do I get involved, how do I do this? I still was up in the air about it, but then I met DJ's grandmother and mother.

WHEN YOU say, "Even if you didn't know him, you knew him," what do you mean by that?

Leondra: Well, the stories they were telling. Many people were telling stories--his family, his friends, his childhood friends, and even some of the people who were witnesses to what had happened to DJ. They basically told us who DJ was as a person. They played videos. I'm a religious person, I'm a spiritual person, and I felt like I connected somewhat with DJ's spirit that day. And since then, I've been very involved with the case.

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COULD YOU tell us what happened on the night of October 17, 2010?

Leondra: DJ had a homecoming game on the 16th against Stonehill College. DJ was playing for Pace. They ended up losing. DJ was sort of upset about losing, but was happy for his friend Brandon who was on the team. The Coxes and the Henrys had dinner after the game, and Angella said that DJ was talking about a couple of childhood friends that he used to hang around with who had just robbed a bank and were arrested.

He was talking about how he loved his college and how he was glad he was doing what he was doing and not with that same crowd. After dinner, the Henrys went back to Easton, where they all lived. This was about 6 p.m. Brandon was visiting, so he stayed and let DJ show him the town.

They went to a bar that night. There were two bars they could've gone to, but DJ chose the bar that had less drama. They went there, and a fight had broken out between one of DJ's friends and a bouncer. And they shut the bar down--Finnegan's Bar in Thornwood, N.Y.

DJ had nothing to do with the fight. The crowd got out of hand, and the owner ended up calling the police. I think maybe about five or six different police departments responded on the scene to try to control the crowd. DJ was in the car with Brandon. There were, I think, three other people they were trying to pick up, because they were carpooling back to the townhouse at Pace.

Desmond, who was in the backseat, jumped in, and that's when the police officer tapped on the car window. Mind you, the window's already fogged up because of the condensation, so they couldn't see outside the car. Afterward, DJ drove off, and this is at 14.7 miles per hour. This is perfect parking lot speed.

He was parked in the fire lane, so he knew that they were asking him to move out of there. He was going to circle back to pick up the rest of his friends. There was a stop sign about 10 feet from where the shooting had happened. He drove off, and Aaron Hess came out from between two parked police cars, and already had his gun drawn.

From what I read, based on witness statements, he had his hand up to say stop, but he also had his finger on the trigger. He fired into the hood of the car, so that was one shot. DJ's first instinct is to cover up, so he leaned to his left in the car, and that was when they lost control.

There wasn't enough time to stop the car, the car had sped up to 25 miles per hour, and Aaron Hess ended up on the hood. Then Hess, a Pleasantville officer, fired three more shots. He ended up shooting DJ twice, and Brandon once in the arm.

The car eventually stopped because it smashed into a police car. They took out DJ, they took out Brandon, and they took out Desmond. Desmond ended up with a concussion. DJ was dragged to the ground and handcuffed, and his last words, according to Brandon, were: "They shot me."

He lay there dying. A couple of friends tried to save DJ and ended up getting threatened or Tasered. One of them, who I think played quarterback for Pace, was Tasered, and he had to have it removed from his side at the hospital. DJ died on the scene.

Aaron Hess wasn't the only one shooting at the car. One thing people don't know is that there was another officer shooting at the car. Ronald Beckley, another cop, was shooting at the car, but he was also shooting at Aaron Hess, because he saw him as the one shooting at the car, so he thought he was the threat.

I know there was a crowd that gathered for DJ at the hospital where he was pronounced dead. They were waiting for DJ's family to come. They were not greeted by any cops; they were greeted by a nurse about DJ's condition. Brandon eventually told Angella after she asked what happened.

This is what happened. DJ did not deserve this. So they gathered themselves, and the fight progressed into what we have today.

Wayne: Prior to that, we don't know where Aaron Hess was before that--before he stepped out in between the two vehicles. I don't understand that. That's what I'm thinking about...was he planning on this, was it a spontaneous move? I don't know.

And I think the widely circulated dash camera footage shows it took forever for DJ to even get any medical attention. He literally died draining blood out of him. He literally died on the streets of New York. Aaron Hess has not been indicted as yet. There are some legal things that I can't get into. Things are happening positively towards our favor.

THIS IS the same county in which you find the killers of Kenneth Chamberlain Sr. and Christopher Ridley--cases where the cops have also gotten away free. What do you make of that?

Leondra: When there's a cover-up of one, there's going to be a cover-up of all three. I feel like not only is it the cops hiding from something, but they're hiding behind the district attorney (DA) in that case. She actually covers that district, and because of the fact that she is sympathetic toward cops who kill individuals, I feel like maybe she just shouldn't be in that seat.

I feel like I'm very sympathetic toward family victims who have dealt with these kinds of cases. It shouldn't go unheard. Another thing is that people are afraid of the police. I think that's what's hindering the fight in these cases.

YOU WERE in Chicago recently for the Socialism conference, where there was a panel discussion of families speaking out against police brutality. Have you been able to connect with different families?

Wayne: Yes I have. I've spoken with James Rivera's family. I've spoken with the Ramarley Graham family. And a few others advocates for peace. We really want to do something soon. We're going to start a movement. We're going to continue in a different vein in this movement and just try to have more families involved.

I was thinking of organizing a busload of women to come to D.C. and just protest the murder of children. We believe the way they're affecting the Black community by allowing the drugs and allowing the guns to come in, that some of these killings of one another, Black-on-Black crime, is also related to the police brutality--a lack of police investigation and care.

Leondra: I actually spoke to them each one by one, the mothers and the fathers. I told them if they needed anything, we can keep in contact, to hopefully start a national gathering of parents and families who have children or any kind of family member who fell victim to police violence.

IT'S INCREDIBLE that 2,000 people attended DJ's memorial, and that Pace University built a clock tower dedicated to him. Could you talk about the support from the community?

Wayne: It was just heavenly ordained, when we heard about the memorial and how it affected so many strangers and so many people. If you look at Danny and the light that he showed...a kid that people just loved...loved to call him son or son-in-law. My whole workplace, from my boss to my peers, was there on short notice.

It shows that the decency of America cannot be hidden by some of the ugly things that America portrays. I think there's a lot of beauty in this country that has to be put on display, and the only way we're going to do that is by changing collective consciousness.

It does take a whole village to raise a child, and it does take a whole nation to produce a better nation. It can't be done just by, without everyone being involved. It's got to be done by everybody because there's a lot of evil here that people will ignore because of the fact of their skin tone or the fact of the money. And we have to.

Life is too short to not be truthful to each other and say, "That shit ain't right"--to have the courage to say, "That's not right, let's do something about it." Some of the institutions that serve us have used color to divide the masses.

WHAT WOULD justice look like, for you and for this case, and how can people support the campaign for justice for DJ?

Leondra: I would say, first, there needs to be accountability. That's something that the family has stressed. Someone needs to be held accountable for DJ's untimely demise. Aaron Hess is still on the force, he needs to be fired from the force, and he needs to be indicted. I think that's a big step from now, but I think accountability first--he needs to own up to what he did and go to jail for it.

It's actually really tough to get involved in something like this. When I first started, I didn't have any family contacts. I just basically befriended Angella Henry on Facebook, and from there, we decided to make moves from there.

On Facebook, there's a Justice for DJ Henry page. There's a lot of events that the family has, basically for younger people who would like to be involved in sports and scholarships. That's I actually bought a shirt from that website and I sport it. There are pins and bracelets out there.

If you can contact DJ's mom through Facebook, message her and she will send you pins and bracelets. I got mine from DJ's grandmother two years ago, and I still continue to sport it today because it's very special to me. I think letting people know is difficult because you don't know how to go about it. It's hard to tell the story without getting too emotionally involved in this story. I've had to break down in tears a couple of times, because this shouldn't happen to anybody.

Nobody should be subjected to this kind of murder, this kind of degradation at all. But definitely check out DJ Dream Fund and the I am DJ Henry page. And I also started a movement of my own in Boston. That's also a page as well. It's I Am DJ Henry Movement in Boston.

Wayne: If we don't do something now, and do something meaningful and let this movement take over America, and then the world, then we're going to be living in a police state and dictated to by a badge and a gun. I would like to see Aaron Hess indicted for the murder of DJ Henry.

I would like to see a concentrated effort by the police leadership in the way they police those who pay their salaries. They're here to serve and protect--we want to see that. That's very important. I think it's best if we have grassroots meetings that turn into meaningful dialog with other community leaders and other community forces that want to see a change.

And they only way we're going to make a change is to bring it forth into the public eye so that the government can see that we're not just emotionally upset about what's going on, but we actually have an organized section of America, from all races and financial backgrounds, who want to see change.

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