Family of Student Killed in Trooper Custody Kept in Dark on the Basics

Two days before George Floyd was killed in police custody on May 25 in Minneapolis, an unarmed 28-year-old black man was shot fatally multiple times while in the custody of a white New Jersey State Trooper on the Garden State Parkway in Burlington County.

While in Minnesota, the four officers allegedly involved in Floyd’s killing have been identified, fired from their jobs, charged and arrested, here in New Jersey the public doesn’t yet know who the trooper was and what his employment status is.

The case of the trooper shooting of Maurice S. Gordon of Poughkeepsie, back on May 23, only really resurfaced this weekend thanks to Mr. Gordon’s family’s attorney pressing for more information from Attorney General Gurbir Grewal.

On May 23 the Burlington Times ran a 234 word report that merely stated  there was an investigation of “a fatal officer-involved shooting that occurred along the Garden State Parkway”  that happened on a stretch “of the Garden State Parkway in the township [Bass River] . One male civilian is dead.”

There was no reference to the color of Mr. Gordon’s race, nor the identity of the police agency involved, nor the name of officer who shot Mr. Gordon.

We did learn that the investigation was “being conducted by the attorney general’s Integrity Bureau within the Office of Public Integrity and Accountability and the New Jersey State Police Major Crime Bureau” thanks to a 2019 law requiring the Attorney General’s Office investigate the deaths of civilians in police custody.

Three days later, on May 26, the New Jersey Attorney General finally disclosed the identity of Mr. Gordon and the Burlington Times included with that disclosure, the additional detail that it was a New Jersey State Trooper that shot Mr. Gordon, whose race was not included even in the published update.

Then on June 7, thanks only to the Gordon family attorney William O. Wagstaff III,  more details about the in-police-custody-death surfaced in multiple outlets including the Burlington Times and NJ.com.

According to these press accounts, Mr. Wagstaff was shown only a limited portion of police video on June 1, which left him “more questions than answers.”

“As an initial matter, when you have family that is grieving, have a son that is killed unexpectedly by a police officer, you want to know the name of the killer, whether (Gordon) died on side of the road, in ambulance or at the hospital, whether there were first aid efforts. Things that are reasonable,” Wagstaff told the Burlington County Times. “It just doesn’t pass the smell test when you say you’re not releasing that information.”

Mr. Wagstaff disclosed for reporters that Mr. Gordon was black, that he was shot by a white trooper multiple times and handcuffed after being shot.

He said that Mr. Gordon was a college student studying chemistry at Dutchess Community College and was a driver for UberEats.

In a June 7 phone interview with Insider NJ, Mr. Wagstaff said he was troubled that it took him nine days “of badgering” New Jersey’s Attorney General to see even the limited portion of the video the state provided to the family.

He said that he was at a loss to understand why the family had been denied access to the full video and the basic details like where Mr. Gordon actually died.

“While I get that you have an active investigation and you want to maintain the integrity of such said investigation, it just seems crazy to me to say it is appropriate for a bunch of men and women in suits to be able to sit around and look at this man’s last moments of life and then have the family left with no details,” he said.

Mr. Wagstaff said the apparent effort by New Jersey to withhold the details of the fatal shooting stands in sharp contrast to what happened in Minnesota where the four officers allegedly involved in the murder of George Floyd on May 25, have not only been identified, but charged and arrested.

“It just makes you skeptical when something that happened two days later has been around the world five times and up until now, up until a few days ago, all you could find out about Maurice was his name, age, that he was from Poughkeepsie and he was killed by a New Jersey State Trooper,” he said.

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.”

On a few occasions since Mr. Gordon’s shooting, reporters have tried to get more details from Gov. Murphy and Attorney General Grewal only to be told that because of the ongoing nature of the investigation, no additional details would be forthcoming.

Senator Nia Gill (D-34) on Sunday tweeted at Murphy on the subject.

Senator Gill

“I am calling on Governor Murphy for transparency and a swift and thorough investigation into the shooting of Maurice Gordon Jr.,” said the Essex-based senator. “The public demands accountability and justice!”

After the latest round of more in depth coverage of the shooting, the Attorney General’s office re-iterated their previous standby statements.

“Because the investigation is ongoing, we are not in a position to release additional information,” according to the statement supplied to Insider NJ. “Our policy is to presumptively release audio and video recordings of the incident once the initial investigation is substantially complete, typically within 20 days.”

The Attorney General’s office added it was “working quickly to finalize our initial investigation, and we anticipate publicly releasing all footage of the incident before the end of this week.”

Attorney General Gurbir Grewal added the following:

“Our team of independent investigators has been working hard to complete the initial investigation into the shooting death of Maurice Gordon as quickly as possible. That initial investigation is now complete, and we are in a position to publicly release the audio and video recordings of the incident. We have reached out to Mr. Gordon’s family to provide them an opportunity to privately view the footage before its public release.”

Maurice S. Gordon
Maurice S. Gordon

 

At his press conference on Monday, Murphy touched on the killing of Mr. Gordon.

“I have full confidence in the attorney general,” Murphy said. “This matter will be presented to a grand jury.”

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