I had forgotten his name. But I will never forget the name of the man he murdered: Levi Gaines.
His full name was Nathaniel Levi Gaines, Jr. but he was called Levi. Although I never met him, his life affected my life profoundly.
Levi was killed on July 4, 1996. He’d come in to New York from Yonkers for the Fourth, to see the fireworks. He was waiting on a subway platform for the train which would take him toward home when Colecchia shot him in the back.
The crime was so awful not even Rudy Giuliani supported Colecchia in his characteristic repulsive way, by attacking the victim. And the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association provided one of their on-retainer lawyers to defend Colecchia, but declined to pay his fee.
In New York, a criminal defendant has the option of waiving a jury trial for a judge trial. Cops often take this option; easy to understand if you imagine a cop on trial in front of a jury consisting of local citizens. Cops often decide their chances of acquittal are better with a judge.
Colecchia took that option; the judge found him guilty. Colecchia went to prison, for a sickeningly short time.
After such a wrongful death…I had to freeze just then because “wrongful death” is so fucking pale…when a uniformed, armed employee of a big municipal agency kills someone, a case subsequent to the criminal case and trial should ensue. So it was that Levi’s mother, the redoubtable Edith Gaines, an operating room nurse, brought a lawsuit against the City of New York, the NYPD and probably Colecchia individually (I don’t remember if she did, just as I didn’t remember the cop’s name).
In the course of discovery when both sides demand documents to reinforce their cases, a number of civilian complaints against Colecchia turned up. Depressing how many complaints of brutality — especially racist ones — can land in a cop’s record without any adverse consequences to his career.
But the more chilling evidence of Colecchia’s bad character was produced in a deposition of a Police Department psychologist.
In one of those coincidences that seem to occur the older we get — when almost everyone we meet has a connection to someone we know — I had a sort of vague link to this psychologist. My sister-in-law was acquainted with her.
I’d never met her before. When she came into the office for the deposition, I noticed she seemed nervous and a bit defensive. Understandably: in tests she’d given him and interviews she’d had with Colecchia before he’d killed Levi, he had himself admitted to being a racist.
Why on the earth that is New York City was Colecchia, admittedly a racist, still a cop?
Again, here’s what Melissa, my family member and clinical psychologist, wrote about the position of PD psychologists:
Many moons ago I applied and was offered a job at the police department to assess cops. I turned the job down because I realized during the interview process that they were not actually wanting a valid, discriminating or truthful evaluation. They wanted most people to pass and I would probably be fired pretty quickly if I didn’t give them what they wanted.
The other day, the New York Times published an editorial about how cops are protected from being criminally charged for acts of brutality by a doctrine called qualified immunity. The Times believes this doctrine should be modified, at the least.
One sentence in the editorial rang a loud bell for me:
Qualified immunity arose out of an 1871 civil rights law that made government officials, including police officers, financially liable for violating a person’s constitutional rights.
That law was a response to the mass killings of Blacks by government officials, often wearing white hoods, during the Reconstruction Era. You might find it euphemistic to realize that among a person’s constitutional and civil rights is the right not to be murdered. The right to life.
Mrs. Gaines came to the office to give us some personal papers about Levi — Navy documents, probably his birth certificate. Since she’d brought only the originals, I took them into the copy room, placed them one by one on our big Xerox.
I came to a 3×5 black and white photo of Levi, standing on a grassy rise. His arms stretched out in a consciously goofy sort of pose, embracing the universe. He was smiling big. The most beautiful charming smile, on a beautiful face of a fully alive young man. So alive.
My eyes filled. My blinking did not stop the tears.
I remember monetary settlements for a lot of the cases I was around, back then. I remember nothing of the City’s eventual reckoning to Edith Gaines. Mostly I remember Levi.
The rage of emotion I had in our copy room flares up every time I hear about a cop killing a Black human being for no actual reason whatsoever. And given that cops carry guns and wear bullet-proof clothing, I don’t accept any rationale for cops killing anyone.
Took me weeks to write this.
I don’t cry anymore; the tears have become fury. Helpless fury because I can’t do anything to stop it. All I can do is write about it. And remember Edith Gaines and her gorgeous son.