MANHATTAN (CN) — Disappointing the weeping mother of a slain Guinean immigrant, a federal judge found no negligence or misconduct in the decision by New York City police to store key evidence in a waterside warehouse shortly before Hurricane Sandy.
“At every step of this, you could apply 20-20 hindsight,” U.S. District Judge Kevin Castel said Thursday at a hearing on Mohamed Bah, whose family has been reconstructing the 28-year-old’s death since his shooting on Sept. 25, 2012.
This much of the tragedy is undisputed: Police arrived at Bah’s home in response to a call from his mother, who was concerned about her son’s mental illness and depression. The mother, Hawa Bah, claims that she requested an ambulance, but the NYPD’s Emergency Services Unit busted into the apartment without a warrant despite her protests.
The NYPD alleges that police fired 10 shots at Bah after he lunged at an officer with a knife, but the family denies that he threatened the officers in any way.
In the family’s telling, NYPD Officer Andrew Kress tried to subdue the emotionally disturbed Bah with the stun gun but instead hit Detective Edwin Mateo, who shouted out in confusion: “He’s stabbing me. Shoot him.”
Eight of those bullets struck and killed Bah.
Debra Cohen, an attorney for the Bah family, labeled the incident an “execution and a cover-up” in a 2015 interview with the Huffington Post.
Before gathering in Castel’s courtroom Thursday morning to probe the NYPD’s role in evidence destruction Thursday, Hawa Bah joined more than a dozen civil-rights activists, interfaith religious leaders and others outside the federal courthouse in Manhattan for a group prayer.
The daylong proceedings centered around Sgt. John Capozzi, who supervised the Kingsland Warehouse.
Capozzi testified that the NYPD lost roughly 1,100 barrels of biological evidence five years ago when Superstorm Sandy ravaged the Eastern Seaboard.
The NYPD still does not have a full accounting of what it has lost, the sergeant acknowledged during his cross-examination.
“To this day, here has been no attempt to inventory evidence left in the Kingsland Warehouse,” Cohen asked.
“No, ma’am,” he replied.
Kingsland Warehouse borders Newtown Creek, a polluted body of water dividing Brooklyn from Queens that is still recovering from contamination dating back to the days of the Standard Oil company.
During his efforts to document the destruction, Capozzi said that he wore a Tyvek suit to protect himself from the E. coli, chloroform and other contamination in the flooded Superfund site.
Though police were ultimately unable to salvage the evidence Bah’s family needed for biological testing, it would be too late regardless to perform forensic testing now on the knife, the Taser cartridges and Mateo’s clothing, which were fatefully transferred to Kingsland four days before the superstorm landed.
Bah’s mother broke down into tears as her attorney Cohen said that testing of Mateo’s clothing would support the family’s claim that the detective fired a shot her son in the head at close range.
Bah, who was more than 6-feet tall, had been lying gravely wounded on the ground at this time, Cohen added.
Wearing a green, blue and purple headdress — and a loose-fitting dress traditional for West African Muslim women — Hawa Bah tilted her head down into her hands and cried as her attorney recounted this fatal shot.
At this point, a woman beside Bah — dressed similarly except for a brighter-orange color pattern — offered comfort: Kadiatou Diallo, the mother of the late Amadou Diallo, another Guinean immigrant whose death in a hail of 41 bullets became a rallying cry against police brutality.
United in a tragic immigrant story, both women walked out of the courtroom for Hawa Bah to regain her composure.
But the women’s grief was not enough for Judge Castel to ascribe wrongdoing to the NYPD for the storm’s destruction.
Cohen called the timing “fishy” but appeared to concede the lack of hard evidence supporting intentional evidence destruction.
“The reality is, even if there’s no evidence of wrongdoing, we’re still without the evidence,” she told the court.
But Castel found that Sandy’s “unprecedented” toll blindsided the NYPD, which lost enormous amounts of biological evidence unrelated to the Bah case.
“This isn’t a selective approach to evidence by the city of New York,” the judge said.
Finding “no culpable state of mind,” Castel denied a spoliation motion seeking to strike the NYPD’s defenses at trial.
“So, we are where we are,” the judge said. “Facts are stubborn things.”
Hours after the ruling, Hawa Bah released a statement to the press.
“I am disappointed with Judge Castel’s ruling today,” she said. “However, this does not change the fact that there is clear evidence that the NYPD first broke protocol when they forced their way into Mohamed’s apartment and then unjustly killed my son.”
With trial now set for Nov. 1, the Bah family still is pushing for the officers involved to face federal criminal prosecution.
“Mohamed was a Muslim man, and honors student, a taxi driver and a good son,” Hawa Bah said. “He had never committed a crime in his life. He was sick so I called 911 for an ambulance to get him help. He did not deserve to die yet the NYPD gunned him down in cold blood.”