Saturday’s Trenton rally for Maurice Gordon (photo by Erica Dumas)
Limited disclosure hampers progress on independent autopsy by world renown pathologist lawyer says
Dozens of protestors chanting “I am Maurice Gordon” turned up in Trenton on Saturday at the offices of Attorney General Gurbir Grewal to protest the handling of the case of the 28- year-old unarmed Black motorist who was shot six times by a New Jersey State Trooper on the Garden State Parkway on May 23.
Speakers included Racquel Barrett, Mr. Gordon’s mother, Yanique Gordon, 27, William O. Wagstaff, the family’s attorney, Pastor Rev. Lukata Mjumbe, of the Witherspoon Free Presbyterian Church in Princeton, Shavar Jeffries, a civil rights attorney and Zelle Imani, a Black Lives Matter activist based in Paterson.
“What happened to Maurice Gordon Jr. was a tragedy—he was shot six times and handcuffed,” said Austin Skelton, the rally protestor, who is a third-year law student at Villanova. “We are here today to apply pressure today to the Attorney General to have a transparent and fair investigation. We want the rest of the dash and body cam footage non-redacted.”
“We want the Medical Examiner to release the autopsy results,” he continued. “We want the Gordon family to have the solace ad peace and lay their loved on to rest.”
According to the Gordon legal team, the state’s failure to turn over Mr. Gordon’s clothes and the state’s autopsy is delaying the independent autopsy report from Dr. Michael Baden, the former Chief Medical Examiner for the City of New York, who also conducted the independent autopsy for the Floyd family.
A BRITISH VIEW
Mr. Gordon’s mother and sister, who currently reside in England, came to the United States to advocate for a complete and transparent probe of Mr. Gordon’s death and plan on returning his body for burial in Jamaica, where he was born.
“A lot of times I am sitting in the United Kingdom in my sitting room watching the news, BBC or CNN, and I am seeing a lot of things with my brothers and sisters here, and I am saying is it that bad in America?” Ms. Barrett explained to the crowd. “Just like that, the shooting down of people…It is disheartening, distressful and I am in pain and I am heart broken and I want justice for my son.”
“Without all you guys we won’t get any justice and it is sad we have to go through this process and scream and shout just to get our voices heard,” said Ms. Gordon.
“We have tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands of people who are standing with the Gordon family all over the country because when they cry out for justice in Atlanta for Rayshard [Brooks], for George [Floyd] in Minneapolis. For Breonna [Taylor] in Louisville. They are also calling for justice for Maurice,” Rev. Mjumbe said.
GRAND JURY NEXT
“We have great respect for those who choose to exercise their First Amendment right to protest, but right now, we’re focused on completing the independent investigation into Mr. Gordon’s death and preparing the matter for presentation to the grand jury,” responded a spokesperson for the Attorney General after the rally. “Mr. Gordon’s family is entitled to a thorough and impartial investigation into the circumstances of his death, and our team of career investigators and prosecutors will make sure that happens.”
Sgt. Randall Wetzel, who was assigned to Troop D, was placed on administrative leave as is customary for the New Jersey State Police in a police-involved shooting. The Attorney General’s Office of Public Integrity and Accountability is conducting what Mr. Grewal insists is an independent investigation the results of which will be presented with a Grand Jury.
According to a one-page internal document in the files released earlier this month, titled Information of Investigation In Progress, dated on May 29, Mr. Gordon, who was not under arrest, was alleged to have engaged in “physical resistance” and attempts to take Sgt. Wetzel’s handgun and vehicle.
SHAPING THE NARRATIVE?
This document was leaked to the New York Daily News the day before it was publicly released.
The issue of the State of New Jersey’s pace of disclosure of the details of the Burlington County shooting surfaced in the aftermath of the death in police custody of George Floyd on May 25. In that case, less than a week later the four Minneapolis police officers involved in the case had been identified, dismissed from their job, charged and arrested.
In a June 7 phone interview, with Insider NJ, William O. Wagstaff, the Gordon family attorney said he was troubled that it took him nine days “of badgering” New Jersey’s Attorney General to see even a limited portion of the video the state provided to the family.
The Gordon family lawyer said he was also concerned that despite the 2019 directive by Attorney General committing to conduct independent and transparent probes of police involved shootings, the fact this case involved a state trooper meant that “what we have here is a state lawyer investigating the state police.”
The first exhibits in the case file reference 911 calls placed 24 hours earlier at 3:23 am to 911 in Dutchess County from an unidentified friend of Mr. Gordon in Poughkeepsie who called to alert police that the 28-year-old had appeared “very panicked” when he drove off in his 2010 Black Honda after Mr. Gordon asked the friend if he “looked possessed.”
A DAY LATER
The state’s timeline than advances to May 23, when Mr. Gordon first encountered a Red Bank police officer when he ran out of gas at Exit 91 on the Garden State Parkway at 3:13 a.m. New Jersey State Troopers also showed up during that road assistance call.
At 6:13 a.m. Mr. Gordon was pulled over at Exit 62 in Stafford by a NJ State Trooper and issued a ticket for speeding 101 miles per hour.
At 6:26 a.m. at Exit 50 NJSP Sgt. Wetzel pulled over Mr. Gordon for allegedly speeding 110 miles per hour but “during the stop, Mr. Gordon’s vehicle became disabled in the left shoulder and Sgt. Wetzel called a tow truck,” according to the case file. “While they waited for the tow truck to arrive, Sgt. Wetzel asked Mr. Gordon if he would prefer to sit in the back seat of Sgt. Wetzel’s vehicle, and Mr. Gordon stated that he would.”
During that period the officer attempted to engage Mr. Gordon asking him if he felt alright or needed medical attention. He asked why Mr. Gordon was speeding and what he thought was wrong with his car. He also warned Mr. Gordon not to get out of the patrol car because where they were pulled over “was a very bad spot” in terms of traffic.
On the video clip that covers when Mr. Gordon got out, the officer can be heard yelling “to stay in the fucking car” but a physical confrontation ensued when Mr. Gordon did not comply, according to the state’s narrative.
Just 20 seconds later, Sgt. Wetzel is heard on the stationary dash cam video tape yelling for Mr. Gordon to “get out of the fucking car now” which according to the state’s narrative was when Mr. Gordon first tried to sit in the driver’s seat.
The state’s account continues. “After the first occasion, Sgt. Wetzel deployed oleoresin capsicum (OC) spray. After the second occasion, Sgt. Wetzel removed Mr. Gordon from the vehicle and, after a physical struggle on the left shoulder of the southbound Parkway, Sgt. Wetzel shot and killed Mr. Gordon with his service weapon. Sgt. Wetzel fired six times and then placed handcuffs on Mr. Gordon.”
The next time entry is 7:25 a.m., “when a State Trooper attempted to provide aid to Mr. Gordon but did not detect a pulse. Shortly thereafter, a second State Trooper attempted to administer aid. EMS arrived at the scene at approximately 7:28 a.m. and pronounced Mr. Gordon deceased.”
‘BETTER THAN ANYONE’
Last month, the Pine Barren Times reported that a “woman who claimed to be Gordon’s ex-girlfriend and contended that she knew him ‘better than anyone,’ in a May 27 phone interview with this newspaper, described him as a hard-working, studious and extremely devout individual who never drank or took illicit drugs, was totally non-confrontational with police and was terrified of firearms.”
“He is the only man I know who has never touched an illegal drug or a drink in his life,” Denielle Morrison, told the Pine Barren Times. “He was great guy, one of the best I have known. He got up every day, went to work, went to college, and went to church. That was his lifestyle—always trying to get ahead in life.”
Ms. Morrison told the newspaper Mr. Gordon had a history of mental illness for which he was being treated.
Subsequently, both the New York Times and NJ Advance have referenced Ms. Morrison’s assessment of Mr. Gordon. The Gordon family has declined to comment on her account.
“He kept all his mental health appointments,” Ms. Morrison told the Burlington county news outlet. “But whether he was medicated or not, he was very, very compliant with law enforcement and was never confrontational. When he was off his meds and the police came with the people from the crisis center, he went with them willingly, no problem at all.”
NO SITUATIONAL AWARENESS?
Rebecca Everett and Avaloin Zoppo, with NJ Advance Media report that New Jersey police who interacted with Mr. Gordon “four times in four hours… were totally unaware that his friend told a police dispatcher in Poughkeepsie of Gordon’s mental health history and that he abruptly left his home at around 3:30 a.m. [the day before] in a ‘panicked’ state.”
On June 19 on NJTV’s Chat Box with David Cruz, NJ State Police Superintendent Patrick J. Callahan made extensive comment about the Gordon case casting it as a breakdown in communications between the New York and New Jersey law enforcement.
“We had an agency that knew someone was probably in distress,” Callahan said. “That didn’t go beyond Poughkeepsie, New York.”
He also flagged what he described as a breakdown within his own agency that meant that Sgt. Wetzel was unaware that Mr. Gordon had been pulled over for speeding on the same highway just two hours earlier.